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2019 Explanatory Reporting, Medium Newsroom finalist

Powerless

About the Project

Driving around West Virginia, it’s impossible to miss the changes brought by skyrocketing production of natural gas from the state’s Marcellus Shale formation over the last decade. Heavy trucks clog local roads in gas-producing counties. Drilling rigs — large, noisy and imposing — pop up around many turns. Forested hillsides are denuded and leveled for sprawling, multi-well “pads.” Pipelines are being built to crisscross the state and deliver gas to East Coast population centers.

West Virginia’s gas boom has brought much-needed jobs and tax revenue just as the state’s coal industry is bottoming out from a long decline. Business and political leaders are quick to exalt the gas industry’s benefits.

But for residents and communities, the realities of a natural gas economy are very different. Residents say the relentless traffic and noise from heavy machinery has made life unbearable, especially for those who live closest to gas-drilling operations. Environmental groups say regulatory agencies are bending their rules and looking past blatant violations. Land owners say natural gas drillers don’t respect their property; and owners of mineral rights complain that they are cheated out of their fair share, so that the economic benefits of the industry flow less to West Virginia communities than to out-of-state companies.

As part of a year-long investigation of the gas industry, ProPublica and the Charleston Gazette-Mail set out to take readers to the natural gas region and help them experience what life is like there. The entire series is available at this link.

Our story, “Powerless,” used a variety of innovative techniques and tools to show in a vivid and interactive format how it looks and sounds when natural gas companies use century-old property rights laws to take over local land.

Among other things, we captured drone footage to show how close some residents live to gas operations. Using GIS mapping, along with high-resolution aerial and satellite imagery, we were able to show how sprawling the gas wells and underground pipelines really are, surprising even the residents who live above them. Video storytelling allowed residents to speak for themselves about life amid the gas boom. We created time-lapse videos and used audio, taken by residents, to show how heavy truck traffic can be near homes and let readers hear for themselves the level of noise the gas industry has brought to formerly quiet communities.

ProPublica engagement reporting fellow Beena Raghavendran visited West Virginia for several days, basing her itinerary on ideas submitted by residents of the state. The trip helped identify sources for future stories, including “Powerless.”

“Powerless” was the closing piece in our yearlong series on West Virginia’s natural gas industry and it told a story — with words, maps, graphics, video, and audio — about the state that hadn’t been told before.