“Heat and Light” is a story about small town life in Pennsylvania, the impact of fracking and other energy extraction activities and the hypocrisy and opportunism on both sides of the energy debate.
Rich Devlin has spent his entire life in Bakerton, Pennsylvania and works as a prison guard and sometime bartender at his father’s bar. Rich’s goal is to farm the land once farmed by his grandfather and he buys out the interests of his brother and sister, but does not have the financial means to get the farm up and running. Rich is married to Shelby and they have two children, the chronically ill Olivia and her younger brother, Braden.
Kip Oliphant is the founder and CEO of Dark Elephant Energy, which, among other things, is a giant in hydraulic fracturing. Dark Elephant sends its best salesman to Bakerton, Pennsylvania to start signing up leases so that it can accumulate enough land to begin mining shale. Rich immediately signs, accepting Dark Elephant’s first offer, thinking only about the money he will receive to enable him to realize his dream of farming.
Unfortunately, Dark Elephant is unable to start drilling because some of Rich’s neighbors have not agreed to terms. The properties need to be bundled and the owners of the acreage in the middle of the bundle refuse to agree. One of those properties is Mackey Farms, run by a lesbian couple (Rena and Mack) who have rejected Dark Elephant, the result of which has been threats and vandalism to their property. Mackey Farms supplies some of Pennsylvania’s finest restaurants and markets with organic products from their farm. When the owner of one of the properties who has refused to sign a lease conveniently dies of a heart attack, his property is leased to Dark Elephant and the drilling begins.
The book describes the varying impact of the drilling. First is the presence of many workers from out of state, creating additional traffic, higher rents and crowded amenities, although notably, none of the local residents are hired to work on the rigs. Relationships develop between the workers and the residents, which of course are only temporary. The well water becomes contaminated with methane and vendors do not want to purchase animal products raised on farms either directly or indirectly impacted by the drilling. The noise levels are unbearable and the land is effectively ruined. Ultimately, the energy company’s sole interest is making money and when it becomes clear that the drilling is a losing venture, they simply clear out leaving their mess behind. Throughout it all, the book describes the varying impact of the activities on Rich and his family, Rena and Mack and Kip and his family .
During the height of the drilling in Bakerton, a community activist, Lorne Trexler, comes to town in an effort to encourage the community to reject the drilling and pursue legal action. Lorne develops a relationship with Rena, who finds herself attracted to Lorne and works directly with him. One of the children in the community is ill and they believe it is due to the water contamination. When a highly regarded physician determines that the illness is likely not the result of the water and may be the result of something more nefarious unrelated to the drilling, Trexler’s reaction is indifference for the child and disappointment for the potential the loss of an emotion laden opportunity to make his point. When he later realizes that the cause of the child’s illness is still unclear, “He exhales audibly. ‘All right, then. It’s still possible the water is to blame. For our purposes, that possibility is enough.'” Lorne’s activism is simply a different type of opportunism, also taking advantage of the impacted community.
In addition to the focus on fracking, the book goes back to the impact of coal mining and then to the melt down at Three Mile Island. There is a focus on the small town experiences of domestic violence and drug addiction, in particular Methamphetamine, of which nobody who lives in the community seems to be too aware. “It’s the fundamental problem of a life lived in one place: sooner or later, everything becomes invisible.”
The book is good, not great, but it is an enjoyable read and gives you some insight into the business and impact of fracking. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11195716__Sheat%20and%20light__P0%2C2__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold