The Dark Side of a Fracking Boom Town


Last weekend I came face to face with a dirty little secret of the fracking boom — the deep divisions it creates between locals and out-of-towners.

“It’s how we pay the bills.”

When the calendar rolls around to the third weekend in June, it’s Laurel Festival time in my hometown of Wellsboro, Pennsylvania. Wellsboro is one of those quaint small towns that looks like it fell straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

It’s also a fracking boom town.

Since 1938, the Laurel Festival has brought thousands of locals and tourists together in a multi-day celebration of nothing in particular. There are food vendors. An arts and crafts show. A parade. Standard festival fare.

At this year’s festival, I met a woman in her late thirties or early forties. She was accompanied by her son, a junior high-aged kid with a hot dog in one hand and a snow cone in the other. Just an average, middle-class family enjoying the sights and sounds of an obscure piece of Americana.

After a little small talk, I asked her where she was from. She said she was from down south somewhere. Virginia maybe. Then she leaned close and in a half-whispered, half-embarrassed voice she added:

“My husband works for an energy company. I know people around here don’t like us very much, but it’s how we pay the bills.”

Fractures in the fracking boom

In 2014, a documentary called The Overnighters won the Special Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s a movie about the hostility a North Dakota pastor faced when he opened the doors of his church to give out-of-town oil field workers a place to sleep. In return for his acts of kindness, he found himself caught up in the conflict between local residents and a rising tide of non-resident laborers.

Although the divisions may not run as deep as they do in North Dakota, the conflict between locals and out-of-town energy workers has repeated itself in Wellsboro and hundreds of other small communities impacted by the fracking boom.

Here’s how the fracking boom scenario plays out:

PHASE 1: Big energy moves into an area and pays local residents for the mineral rights to their properties. The energy companies usually promise the fracking boom will also mean jobs for opportunity-deprived local residents.

PHASE 2: As activity heats up, the energy companies may hire some local workers to help meet production quotas. But many of the jobs are filled by industry professionals — out-of-town energy workers who come to town for a limited time and relocate when the energy companies move on to the next gas or oil field.

PHASE 3: The sudden influx of out-of-town workers places enormous stress on small local communities. Infrastructure is stretched thin, rents go through the roof and marginalized local residents become homeless because they can’t find affordable housing.

You can see why locals and out-of-towners find themselves at odds with each other in fracking boom towns. A combination of competing interests and limited resources makes conflict inevitable.

The energy companies, on the other hand, walk away unscathed. At the end of the day, high rents, growing homeless populations and inter-group conflicts don’t matter as long as the company’s coffers are full. Sooner or later (usually sooner), they just move on and repeat the entire process in the next fracking boom town.

Fracking boom divisions and the kingdom of God

There’s a part of me that wants to grab the locals and the out-of-towners by the shoulders and remind them they’re on the same team. They’re all hardworking people trying to provide for their families the best way they can.

But I know it’s not that simple. And I think Jesus knew that, too.

Samaritans were the outcasts of the New Testament world. They were the outsiders. The people no self-respecting Jew would have anything to do with.

Yet, on several occasions, Jesus went out of his way to either reach out to Samaritans (the Samaritan woman at the well) or to use Samaritans as a model of godly behavior (the good Samaritan).

The point Jesus was making and the lesson we need to hear is that divisions between groups of people are often illusory. Jews and Samaritans, locals and out-of-towners — the dividing lines that separate us feel real. But they’re false constructs created by powers with a vested interest in keeping us apart.

When a Samaritan helps a hurting Jew along the side of the road, or when a local North Dakota pastor gives out-of-towners a place to sleep, it’s disruptive. An act of rebellion that turns the whole system upside down. And it frustrates the powers. Why?

Because it reframes the conversation in the language of the kingdom of God.

In God’s kingdom, we may not all be the same, but we all have equal value. Through empathy, respect and understanding, we see other people the way God sees them. Eventually, we even begin to appreciate the challenges they’re up against.

Fracking boom towns come and go. Eventually, the out-of-town workers leave and the local community stabilizes. But unfortunately, new divisions will always rise up to take the old divisions’ place.

 And we’ll have new opportunities to disrupt the status quo with the kingdom of God.

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