Hydraulic Fracturing: An Oral History
by Shanna M. Farrell and Anna Levy
Audio Piece Producer:
Hydraulic Fracturing: An Oral History is the work of a group of graduate students at Columbia University. Shanna Farrell, Anna Levy, Kristen La Follette, and Sophie Cooper began this project as part of a graduate fieldwork course. Inspired by the current debate on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, taking place in New York, the group traveled throughout New York and Pennsylvania. They conducted interviews with citizens impacted by fracking, former members of fracking crews, and elected officials. Framing their story along local, state, and national lines, the group hopes to continue their work of increasing awareness about this issue by presenting the human impact of this industrial practice.
In the spring semester of 2012, Marie Scatena, Fieldwork Instructor for Columbia University’s Oral History Master’s Program, asked her students to conduct a group project on the theme of “hard times.” The following is a narrative essay about how one group of students in this class used oral history and technology to produce an audio piece about hydraulic fracturing.
Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as hydro-fracking or fracking, is the process of using high-pressure fluids to drill into shale rock formations 3,000-8,000 feet under the surface of the earth. The rock holds natural gas, which is released and collected as the shale is fractured. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals are injected to widen the fractures in the shale. This process presents a series problems to the environment, human health, and economic prosperity. The Marcellus Shale, which is currently being fracked in several states, is located in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, and parts of Virginia and Tennessee.
Farrell: At the beginning of the spring semester when it was proposed that we break into groups and explore the theme of “hard times,” I immediately thought of doing a project about hydro-fracking. My classmates Kristen La Follette, Sophie Cooper, and Anna Levy were also interested in working on this topic.
Cooper: I was a recent transplant to New York City, and I think the issue of fracking was most appealing because of the debate that surrounded the subject. I felt that working on such a contentious topic could raise awareness, further the dialogue; involve people so they would call their local and national representatives.
Farrell: Our group spoke several times over the following weeks about potential interviews we’d like to do for this project. Kristen and Anna conducted the first two interviews.
La Follette: This project brought my interests together in a way that surprised me. I was already at work collecting interviews with Catholic nuns for my thesis project. To aid in my research, Sophie sent a New York Times profile of the Sisters of Saint Francis of Philadelphia. In learning more about the sisters, I was impressed by their legacy of social justice, and amazed to learn of their long history opposing fracking. Sister Nora Nash granted me two interviews in which she discussed visits she made to Western Pennsylvania where she met with landowners affected by fracking and toured drilling sites. I then attended a symposium on fracking in Eastern Pennsylvania to gather more information for the project.
Levy: My first interview was with New York State water activist, Mirele Goldsmith, who had recently launched a faith-based anti-fracking coalition.
Farrell: These first interviews provided a strong backbone for the project and helped us create an overall structure; we met to brainstormed about other people we would like to interview, themes we felt were important to include, and how we would like to present our research. It took us a while to decide which format to use, but Sophie suggested that we create an audio piece. We decided to break the audio piece into three parts, loosely following the “This American Life” format, and focus on the scientific background of fracking, the state of Pennsylvania, where fracking is currently underway, and New York State, where fracking is proposed, but a moratorium exists.
Cooper: Our group thought that an audio piece was an interesting and engaging way to explore the issue of fracking. In many ways, I interpret Oral History as a way to enable voice and for this topic, which had had such a devastating impact on these communities, I thought an audio piece was the best way to portray such a humanistic story.
Farrell: I interviewed a New York state assemblywoman, Sandy Galef, who has been doing a lot of research on fracking and had taken a trip to Pennsylvania to meet people who have been affected. Sophie and I attended a community meeting about fracking at Pace University in Westchester, New York and recorded two speakers talking about the economic and human health cost of fracking. Later, Sophie spent the day in Pennsylvania with mobile home residents who had been forced from their land because of fracking and Anna did a Skype interview with a man who had been on a fracking crew in the 1980s. With these six interviews, we had assembled the content for our project.
Cooper: Interviewing the mobile home residents in Pennsylvania was especially challenging because the day on which I went to interview them coincided with the presence of various community organizations and media outlets also conducting research for their own stories. I prepared my portable Zoom H4N recorder and tried as best I could to get clear audio. Some of the ambient noise I picked up proved to be helpful B Roll, though we did have to adjust the levels of my interviews because of the sound quality.
Levy: On the morning of my interview with a former member of a fracking crew, I prepared my Tascam recorder and Skype on my computer. I fumbled around my room, navigating placement of the Tascam against Skype’s uneven capture of my live voice and my narrator’s voice, which was being transmitted from half way across the country. Because we were not sitting in the same room, a critical element of the interview ambience was missing. I had no visual cues with which to work, nor did I have any visual prompts to which I could respond.
The interview was unique in offering a historical perspective and firsthand experience; the other interviews we had conducted were with people who had come to the issue of fracking only recently.
Farrell: Once we completed our interviews, we reserved the following two weeks for audio reviews, story building, and critiquing.
Levy: We were a bit frustrated for the first two or three meetings, aimlessly piecing together the themes of thirty or forty potential clips. We attempted to bridge these themes in order to create the skeleton for the narration that would ultimately accompany them.
Cooper: The amount of material we had really exceeded our expectations. Collectively, we had hours of interviews and clips and had to make a real effort to stay appraised of the debate on fracking, sending each other news articles and commentary surrounding the discussion.
Levy: The interview with a former member of a fracking crew redirected the focus of the project for me in some ways. It nurtured the realization that there were two things worth discussing. One was the political, economic, and environmental impact of fracking. The other was the culture of fracking for those involved in gas extraction and processing. These are the stories that reshape broad popular references into a mosaic of daily realities: the dangers, frustrations, and even camaraderie of working on a fracking crew. These stories reflect a complex system at work, detrimental and beneficial to different populations at different times and in radically different ways. Rather than presenting a story that bifurcates the pros and cons as clear-cut, this story added a necessary tone of reflection, where many other stories had presented reaction alone.
Farrell: The interview clips from the fracking crew ended up being incredibly engaging and really helped drive home points expressed by our other narrators.
La Follette: It presented a point of view that did not oppose fracking outright, and touched on the nuances and complications of communities that benefit financially from fracking, yet served to highlight the potential dangers of drilling.
Farrell: Once we began to outline the audio piece, we decided to use a Google Doc to better organize ourselves; we posted general ideas and broke down the project by theme and sub-topics. We created a rough outline of our piece and populated sub-topics with potential clip titles. I volunteered to edit the piece together. After we decided which parts of our respective interview clips worked best in each sub-topic, we each edited our own interviews into clips. Each group member sent me her respective clips and I “sewed” them together. One of the challenges that I faced while editing was sound quality. We did not all use the same recording device or audio editing software. It was a lot of work to balance the sound quality and levels with the piece.
Levy: Moving from the recording of an individual interview to the compilation of multiple interviews was a daunting task. I learned that despite my affinity for the actual interview process, I was intimidated by audio editing. Two fellow students had to walk me through the simple steps of cutting and pasting the audio file, stringing clips together, and exporting them to send to Shanna ..
Cooper: As we were piecing these clips together, we discovered that we really needed a narrator to connect the various interviews, themes and perspectives surrounding fracking. I volunteered to record the narration, which has given me a whole new respect for those who make a career of it. Each time we decided to alter the narration, even slightly, I had to re-record the entire piece in order to balance the audio levels. I ended up recording the narration seven or eight times.
Farrell: We met several times to construct our piece, two times in person and three times via Google Chat. Using Google Chat worked very well for our group because we were scattered throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn. Our online meetings were actually much more productive than our in-person meetings.
The biggest issue that we collectively faced was meeting deadlines. We set small deadlines for ourselves to keep the project moving, like listening to all of the interviews and noting particularly interesting or relevant parts, clipping our own interviews and sharing them, writing and recording narration, creating individual storyboards, submitting potential music for the end of our piece, and completing a rough draft a few days early in order to work out any kinks. The only deadline that we were able to meet was that of our final presentation; perhaps we set unrealistic goals.
La Follette: We decided that it would be best to use music from my friend Ryan Lewis. The music fit with the theme of the piece and helped us to avoid potential copyright issues present in commercial music.
I found that audio distribution platforms enabled us to share files easily as a group. Meeting online was a tremendous help in allowing us all to edit our script and storyboard simultaneously. During our chats we meticulously went through each portion of our drafts to agree upon the order of audio, and hone narration. At times, the amount of information and files seemed overwhelming to keep track of, and there were frequent glitches with chat connections. Ultimately, however, the piece we created was quite successful.
Cooper: It was certainly tough to balance this project and its demands with the rigors of my graduate program at Columbia. Fortunately, I think it’s a project, and topic, we are all interested in continuing to work on and explore.
Farrell: We met the day before the audio piece was due to listen to the rough cut. I edited the final product after hearing group comments. During the final phases of editing, everyone was very attentive and completed work in a timely manner. Everyone seemed equally invested in the success of the project.
I am proud of our work. I learned a great deal from this experience; besides acquiring a strong background knowledge of fracking, I learned how to conduct a comprehensive topical interview without taking the life approach, how to negotiate group dynamics, and how to hone my audio editing skills. We used a lot of technological sources in order to create a solid, tangible oral history project.
Cooper: I agree, and am especially proud of the way that the piece engages its listeners. Using audio to increase awareness of social and political issues is a method I am very interested in and one I think we accomplished through this project.
Citation for Article
Farrell, S. M., & Anna L. (2012). Hydraulic fracturing: an oral history. In D. Boyd, S. Cohen, B. Rakerd, & D. Rehberger (Eds.), Oral history in the digital age. Institute of Library and Museum Services. Retrieved from http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/07/fracturing/.
Farrell, Shanna M. and Anna Levy. “Hydraulic Fracturing: An Oral History,” in Oral History in the Digital Age, edited by Doug Boyd, Steve Cohen, Brad Rakerd, and Dean Rehberger. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2012, http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/07/fracturing/
This is a production of the Oral History in the Digital Age Project (http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu) sponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Please consult http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/about/rights/ for information on rights, licensing, and citation.