The Bad Luck of the Alleghenies: What’s Under the Ground

There was once a wide shallow life-filled sea that filled the bowl to the west of the Crystalline Appalachians–as the Blue Ridge geology is sometimes described. The area is now known as the Cumberland or Allegheny Plateau of the Central Appalachian Basin. Along with the Ridge and Valley Province from Pennsylvania to Alabama, the region’s bedrock consists of sedimentary strata laid down like a two-thousand foot thick layer cake.

When continents collided a few hundred million years ago, it lifted the ancient Blue Ridge higher still and rucked up the Fold-Fault mountains of the Ridge and Valley layer cake that have eroded since into long more-or-less parallel low sandstone ridges above less resistant limestone valleys. But the Allegheny Plateau was not impacted by the pushing and shoving of continents, so there, the layers are relatively undisturbed and neat–one on top of the other.

View the cross sectional image. The horizontal strata of the Allegheny Plateau are to the left of the image, the Blue Ridge to the right.

What is, in the rear view mirror of history, unfortunate for that geological land form (and in the end not so great for its people) is that one of those buried layer components of the ancient oceans consists of the oily carbonaceous deposits of millennia of dead algae and phytoplankton that piled up thick and stayed that way–compressed and in place over the years to form coal.

Or oil shale. And you know the rest of the story. Any place Big Oil can gain access to those deep-dead organic compounds (Carbon in the form of coal, oil or gas) it will do whatever it takes to extract it to the last possible drop. This black-gold rush create lots of jobs, then much fewer as mechanization and Mountaintop Removal replaced pick and shovel mining and the boom went to bust, as natural gas will and already is.

The latest verse of that song is fracking the Marcellus and Utica shale within this same geology–from which is extracted deeper, less efficient, unconventional energy that requires huge amounts of chemical-laden water and whose highest dollar return at the end of thousands of pipeline miles across private property is overseas.

Move over, landowners, just passing through on the way to end users in Europe. With the government in the pocket of industry, eminent domain hangs as a threat to force the taking of the land (and water) of thousands of Appalachian farms and homesteads “for the greater good” of society (provided they own the right corporate stock.)

This is NOT going down well with a people who take their identities from the places they have lived for generations. Communities like Floyd are insisting that they have a say–including veto power–to refuse to allow access and probable risks to the long term health of their land.

What we have here is a growing stand-off–not between NIMBYs and a legitimate only-choice / best-possible way forward in our energy future. It is a struggle between simple folk taking the seven generation view of things, looking at the BIG PICTURE standing resolutely against get-rich-quick maintain-the-status-quo Big Oil Hamfists and their bankers and lawyers and senators and spin-merchants-of-doubt.

The F in FERC is for Federal, and this rubber-stamp agency at the top of the peck order (F may also stand for Fox guarding the hen house) does not give a tinker’s damn about the well-being of you and me.

But the  increasingly organized and geographically spreading opposition is not just speaking out against this or that pipeline to but against PIPELINES and FRACKING and another generation of carbon in the air our great grandchildren will breathe. And in this struggle, we are seeing more clearly those things that we are against, but also those unalienable rights that we stand for.

See Our view: The big picture on the pipeline – Roanoke Times: Editorials

We have to end this HERE and NOW. Investors across the nation are saying NO to coal. Investors in natural gas had better be paying close attention.

Stay tuned. I think we’re about (within a generation or less) to witness a regime change. Or a revolution.



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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I’m not joining the opposition to the natural gas pipelines. I might actually be more in favor of them than opposed. From my perspective, much of the opposition is opposed just to be opposed; i.e. not looking for a solution but opposed to everything. There has to be a better way forward that actually includes some sort of conversation with reasoned appreciation/understanding of the various positions on such matters.

  2. Con, I see some contrarianism, certainly, as you’ll find in any public crowd. But if you read the op piece I linked to (or hundreds of others I’ve read since summer) you’d be less inclined to make such a blanket statement.

    I think there could be a transition period during which we must continue to rely on carbon fuels to a lesser degree, but NOTHING is being done by the energy companies (who hold NG up as a bridge to what comes next) or by the government for all organizations, municipalities and communities to reassess their electricity footprint. What ever happened to conservation–the single most quickly applied fix to lower demand?

    The idea is to keep the throttle wide open, to spend and heat and light and travel–if anything MORE–but let the reigning carbon-based economic model prevail. Demand must stoke the engines of the Growth Economy. After 40 years of following this issue, I’m convinced we cannot survive a “burn it all” model. We are mortally deluded if we act like we think this is possible.

  3. And … I just saw this bit of good news

    “Major victory for Bank Like Appalachia Matters!

    After five years of action by Earth Quaker Action Team, PNC announced Monday a shift in its policy that will effectively cease its financing of mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia.

    Together we have shifted the policy of the seventh largest U.S. bank! This marks a major turnaround for PNC, who for years refused to budge on this issue. After more than 125 actions, their desire to continue business as usual proved no match for EQAT and our allies.

    CELEBRATE and SHARE this news widely. Together we have shown that strategic nonviolent direct action makes a difference!

    Join us in thanking the people of Appalachia who continue to inspire us and take bold action.

    #ShiftPNC #Quakers #Appalachia

    Keep watching this page and check out EQAT’s website for more information on this victory!

  4. I can’ t cite chapter and verse, but from all the environmental magazines I read I have gotten the impression that conservation and sustainability aregaining great traction in the mainstream world. I know it is still way too little, but I am encouraged that momentum is building. Keep the educating us all by your blog going strong, because it is beginning to be echoed from more quarters every day.