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Some Seekers of Rural Life Move Out of Pennsylvania as Gas Rigs Move In

The Aubrees were the lone holdouts against a developer's plan to tap gas in their small town. Now, living in the shadow of drilling rigs, they're leaving

May 3, 2011
Barn in Montrose Susquehanna County, Pa.

Editor's Note: SolveClimate News reporter Elizabeth McGowan traveled to Northeastern Pennsylvania in late March to find out how the gas drilling boom is affecting the landscape and the people who call it home. This is the fourth in a multi-part series. (Read parts one , two and three)

MONTROSE, Pa.—After three consecutive nights of tossing and turning, Anna Aubree was so desperate for sleep that she packed a pillow, a blanket and Jasmine the family golden retriever into her car early one March morning.

The 60-something retiree drove seven miles to the relative peace and quiet of the local high school parking lot just to try to refresh her exhausted self by catching a few winks.

All she sought was a brief respite from the constant barrage of pounding, banging, booming and grinding that penetrates the walls of the little yellow one-story house she shares with her husband, Maurice.

"This is my humble abode. But the truth is, I want out," she told SolveClimate News in her thick Brooklyn accent while seated at a dining room table covered with stacks of research documents. "We're surrounded. This noise is horrible. And it never stops. It's all night long."

Anna and Maurice AubreeAnna and Maurice AubreeThe Aubrees bought their 3.75-acre wedge of paradise off a dirt road in rural Pennsylvania in 1988, settling there permanently from Long Island four years later. They planted passels of Colorado spruces along its borders and sketched out plans for a retirement refuge that included a horse farm for their three sons and yet-to-arrive grandchildren.

Two decades ago, hardly anybody thought about their prefabricated house in the tiny Susquehanna County community of Forest Lake resting atop what geologists refer to as the "sweet spot" of Marcellus Shale. It's considered the drilling nirvana of Northeastern Pennsylvania because the band of black sedimentary rock — remnants of an ancient sea bed now buried deep underground — is consistently 400 feet thick and saturated with treasured natural gas.

Holdouts in a Doughnut Hole

A year ago in May, on Mother's Day, the Aubrees discovered that all of their farming neighbors had opted to take advantage of lucrative leasing offers from the Pittsburgh offices of Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation.Rig behind the Aubrees' propertyRig behind the Aubrees' property

The Aubrees, situated on a comparative sliver of land, were the lone holdouts.

Even though they didn't sign a lease, they soon started to find out what it means to live in the midst of an energy boom. Last summer, Cabot began orchestrating a series of seismic tests involving helicopters, dynamite and "thumper trucks" that help companies determine where to situate their wells and accompanying infrastructure.

By October, Cabot orchestrated a heavy-duty equipment movement to clear the land just a stone's throw from the Aubrees' property line. Soon, a lengthy roadway led to a staging area designed to accommodate a spacious pad for a series of wells.

As autumn turned to winter, the company continued setting up a jarring and complex network of drilling architecture. Come February, Anna and Maurice were treated to the ominous view of 142-foot metal drilling rig when they peeked out their back windows. Now, one well is about complete and at least seven more are in the preparation stages.  

"It's eerie looking," Anna said about the looming, lighted behemoth that resembles some sort of set-up from a NASA rocket launch. It's especially otherworldly at night. "We couldn't even open a window during the summer because all of that machinery was so loud."

She spent the summer, fall and winter calling agency after agency, hoping to find somebody who could offer relief from the cacophony. But she couldn't even find evidence of a municipal or county noise ordinance.

"Cabot told us that we're in a doughnut hole," Anna explained. "And all everybody else tells us is to take the money and sign the lease we were offered. But we've made it clear to Cabot that we're not interested in a lease."

Not Everybody Is a Petroleum Engineer

Upon hearing about the Aubrees' plight from SolveClimate News, Chris Tucker, a spokesman for the natural gas advocacy group Energy in Depth, extended his sympathies from his Washington, D.C., office. He admitted that gas companies should be rethinking the way they reach out to the general public.

"Folks don't know their stuff about Marcellus Shale drilling and quite frankly why do we expect them to?" Tucker asked in an interview. "It's our job to educate them. They're not petroleum engineers."

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