"Hotbed in Tranquility" by R. W. White


Natural gas has been produced and used in upstate New York for longer than anywhere on Earth.  Indigenous people knew of “burning springs” for centuries, and it was nearly 200 years ago that William Hart ran the first commercial gas line to brighten lamps in the homes of Fredonia, NY, on the shore of Lake Erie.  The first well to release its gas through fracturing the shale formation was drilled in Fredonia in 1857.  Other parts of the nation and the world may have become better known as sources of natural gas — while the Empire State was enjoying progress and prosperity in such sectors as agriculture and manufacturing — so few New Yorkers paid much attention to our local gas wells.

In the past twenty years a surging demand for domestic energy sources drew interest back to the potential abundance of natural gas beneath the beautiful meadows and streams of upstate New York.  A declining farm economy made the exploitation of mineral rights attractive to many landowners, especially with development of the Trenton – Black River formation with its gas under natural pressure, that seemed to cause only temporary disruption to normal activity.  The development of horizontal drilling techniques might mean that even those who lived near a gas well might benefit monetarily.  But beneath the Trenton – Black River play — as deep as 9,000 feet — rests the Marcellus Shale.  Referred to as a “super giant” gas field, this gas can only be released by fracturing the rock with a combination of water, sand and chemicals whose exact composition varies and are often under proprietary control.

The prospect of “hydrofracking” with the potential for pollution of water resources and the disruption of rural tranquility has made New York deal cautiously with drilling in the Marcellus Shale.  This activity is presently under state-imposed moratorium.  It remains a topic of debate, the subject of hundreds of reports, letters to the editors and now, a romantic novel.  “Hotbed in Tranquility” was written by R. W. White, who lives, as he describes it, “on a wooded hillside, atop a shale-field of natural gas” in Owego.  Robert White is a retired Presbyterian minister who lived for many years in England.  This is his fourth book, and his second novel.

Tranquility is the name of a fictional town in New York’s Southern Tier, in the heart of the Marcellus gaslands.  As the story opens it appears that the exploratory activity has already taken a toll.  Will Ross has returned home to the U.S. after a long stint overseas as a Foreign Service Officer.  He discovers that his own parents are contemplating signing over permission to drill for gas on their land.  Meanwhile, others have begun to sense problems of water pollution and illnesses caused by seepage of gas into their wells.  The gas drillers seem to have the dominant hand with their political connections, but the Town Supervisor of Tranquility, Stephanie Reynolds Hall, has gathered opponents of drilling in support of her campaign for U.S. Congress.  She is a smart, attractive candidate, a divorced mother of two children, including an 11-year old son who may have contracted a pre-cancerous condition from the effects of gas exploration.  Stephanie is also the former high school sweetheart of Will Ross.

Will is back in the States after many years posted abroad and his new position at the State Department happens to involve negotiating new international agreements on natural gas.  He sees the possibility of the growth of a worldwide natural gas cartel, which could place both the United States and the Town of Tranquility at a disadvantage.  It is a confidential assignment, but it seems that persons in high places are aware that Will has become involved in Stephanie’s anti-drilling campaign.  Readers also become aware that Will and Stephanie have resumed a passionate affair.  The hotbed of the title doesn’t just refer to politics and hydrofracking.

Tranquility in Takoda County is a fictitious name, but nearly everything else in R.W. White’s novel is drawn from a real situation and actual locations.  Stephanie is running for the House of Representatives in New York’s 24th Congressional District, which for purposes of the story stretches from the Finger Lakes to Oneonta.  Characters go to see a B-Sens hockey game and take a ski trip to Greek Peak.  There is even reference to a 19th century Judge Avery, an historic figure who was the subject of R.W. White’s earlier book.

R.W. White joins Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to discuss the novelization of the Marcellus Shale question.


Photo courtesy of Gerry Dincher via Flickr.

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