Simona Perry is an environmental sociologist who studies how rural landowners make decisions about their property. She has spent the past two years in eastern Pennsylvania and has seen some unsavory tactics up close, including what she calls "playing the patriotism card."
"A landman might say, 'You're being un-American if you don't sign this.' They use patriotic rhetoric about foreign oil." It's a tactic that works well in the region, says Perry, because the people tend to be conservative and Republican, and many serve in the military.
Perry, who is a postdoctoral research fellow at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., now works to spread awareness about the Landman Report Card, even to those who have already leased their acreage. "A lease doesn't mean landmen won't come to your door," she says. "They still come around getting people to sign for pipelines and other agreements. So [ExtrAct] is still helpful."
A Wikipedia of Gas Wells
Part two of ExtrAct, the News Positioning System, was released in early 2010. The simple website posts news articles onto a map of the United States, creating a database of stories by location.
It allows people to find out what's happening in other parts of the country, says Tara Meixsell, a western Colorado activist, and "to really understand they're not alone."
But for veteran activists like Meixsell, ExtrAct's most useful feature is WellWatch, released in November. So far, the website has information on every individual gas well in five states, listing GPS coordinates and well operators. ExtrAct hopes to expand WellWatch to every gas well in the country.
WellWatch runs on a Wikipedia interface. Each well has its own wiki page where users can post pictures, comments or complaints.
A search of recent notes turns up the following: One Colorado landowner reports body rashes and breathing problems. In Pennsylvania, someone is woken by loud drilling at 3:00 AM on a Sunday morning. Other complaints range from "odors" to "dead chickens" to "discolored and stinking water in the house."
The site has just 130 registered users. Between March 10 and April 16, it garnered 110,000 page views. Even with its limited use, Csikszentmihályi has seen a lot of customization as users create wiki pages for their counties and activist groups. "I think the power will grow as more people start using it."
WellWatch is much easier to navigate than the official state databases, says Meixsell, and allows users to compare state-by-state trends like never before.
Still, ExtrAct requires the Internet, and for the rural Pennsylvania landowners that Perry works with, that can be a problem. Many locals don't have computers so she has started recording their stories for them.
There are two types of ExtrAct users, explains Csikszentmihályi. The first type is Internet savvy — they might learn about ExtrAct on Facebook and immediately start posting. The second type relies on people like Perry and Meixsell to make house calls and guide them through the process.
For her part, Meixsell is used to this kind of work. She's acted for years as a default expert in Garfield County in the heart of Western Colorado gas country, and is constantly fielding calls from people who report well problems on their property.
Meixsell is mostly self-taught. After years of seeing friends suffer from drilling impacts, she wrote the book "Collateral Damage" to chronicle alleged health and environmental effects caused by the industry.
She knows that many stories will never be told. Some landowners are too frustrated to share their experiences, Meixsell explains. Others have family members who work in the industry.
"We've heard over and over [about people's] fear of reporting," says Csikszentmihályi. ExtrAct tries to accommodate them by allowing for anonymous usernames. Members can also contact each other through the site instead of revealing personal email addresses.
These features have made ExtrAct "a more palatable venue" for landowners, says Meixsell. "It has enabled me to get more people to report than would have been willing to do so initially."
Policy Impact Unclear
It's too early to tell if ExtrAct will have any impact on government policy. For now, the founders are focused on recruiting more landowners.
With time, the site could help provide evidence in court cases over fracking regulations, says attorney Todd O'Malley, one of several lawyers helping to spread the word about ExtrAct. O'Malley, whose speciality is workplace injury claims, says ExtrAct is "an outstanding database" that can help lawyers find witnesses for court cases.
Earlier this year, Meixsell and Perry visited Reps. Diana DeGette and Jared Polis, both Democrats from Colorado, in Washington, D.C. DeGette and Polis are co-sponsors of the FRAC Act, which would require drilling companies to disclose the chemicals in fracking fluids. "[Both] were very interested and thought [ExtrAct] would be useful when talking with other policymakers," says Perry.
Csikszentmihályi says that ExtrAct's creators didn't set out to create an anti-fracking tool, but rather a way to help landowners new to gas exploration make smarter decisions about whether to let companies drill on their property.
"My home is gas heated. I'd be frozen or a hypocrite" to advocate for no drilling, he says. "But is it worth doing it in this way?" he asks, referring to the scientific unknowns about the method's effects on groundwater and air quality.