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.”
The 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.
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.”
No doubt, drilling for natural gas creates construction and industrial sites that are loud, dirty and inconvenient, he stressed, even though companies are constantly seeking to mitigate those drawbacks.
“For years, the industry has focused its communication efforts on engaging financial analysts, regulators and landowners with gas on their property,” he said. But this issue of Marcellus Shale drilling “has garnered so much attention that our audience needs to be expanded to include the general public. It makes sense to do that. A lot of producers are starting to do that.”
Gas companies’ greatest assets, he concluded, are informed landowners.
“We’re going to be there for at least 40 years,” he said. “Why do we want to start off on the wrong foot by trying to take advantage of people?”
Long, Loud Time Coming
While the Aubrees’ house might not be in the shadow of a drilling rig forever, harvesting gas from the Marcellus Shale isn’t a quick in-and-out venture either.
It can take up to eight months to create a functioning well, according to information Energy in Depth provided via a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article.
Each stage is labor intensive and reliant on high-volume internal combustion engines. Crews are often working 24/7 because so much of the drilling equipment is so expensive to rent.
Site construction, which includes clearing and leveling acreage for the well site, the well pad, the accompanying roadway in and out, and short-term quarters for workers takes a minimum of two months.
Each vertical well, which can be 4,000 to 10,000 feet deep, takes at least two weeks to drill. Many pads can accommodate up to 10 wells. Horizontal drilling, which can extend about a mile but is about 3,000 feet on average, adds another two weeks per well to the timeline. Trucks use the newly carved roadway to haul away the “cuttings” — the soil, rock and other pieces of earth dislodged by drilling — to landfills.
The actual hydraulic fracturing of a well takes three or four days, but preparation can take up to two weeks because it’s such a technically precise operation. The water, sand and chemicals used in the fracturing process then have to be extracted from the well before companies can begin to harvest natural gas. Expelling what’s known as “flowback” lasts at least a week.
Those last two stages require millions of gallons of freshwater to be trucked in and “flowback” to be carted away when it can no longer be recycled for fracking. Plus, machinery is needed to install the underground pipelines to deliver the natural gas to its destination.
Once a well is “delivering” natural gas — and most are expected to do so for anywhere from five years to 30 years, or beyond — the site left behind can appear quite tame and unobtrusive to passersby.
Indeed, the roadways to the drilling pad are permanent fixtures. And, sets of meters and brine tanks poking up through the ground are the only other intruders visible for the long-term. Wells are monitored electronically from afar and well tenders also make regular rounds to physically check on them.
Drilling Sites Forever Changed
Cabot’s Pittsburgh offices hired George Stark as the company’s director of external affairs more than a year ago when tension over hydraulic fracturing began peaking. In Pennsylvania, his company opted to lease land for drilling solely in Susquehanna County because of its abundant natural gas supply in the Marcellus Shale and access to an existing transcontinental pipeline.
He wasn’t familiar with the particulars of the Aubrees’ situation but he is aware many county residents assume the somewhat foreboding drilling rigs are fixtures that will mar landscapes forever.
Cabot, he said, prides itself on partnering with a nonprofit sportsmen’s group, the Quality Deer Management Association, to rehabilitate acreage that was cleared and flattened to make way for drilling. The company doesn’t restore the original topography but it does put preserved topsoil back in place. As well, Cabot is collaborating with a local seed company to hasten the reclamation process and minimize erosion.
“Of course, the land will never be the same,” Stark explained to SolveClimate News as he pointed to a completed and functioning well site off a rural Pennsylvania road near Montrose. “But we’re not abandoning the site and letting whatever would grow there take over. What we don’t have is an attitude that we’re going to do whatever we want. We restore the site in a respectful manner.”
“This notion of a moonscape is wrong,” he continued. “I don’t think what people are left with in the long term can be called scarring. I think we leave the land much better afterward than most extractive industries.”
Executing an Exit Plan
Tucker’s sympathies and Stark’s restoration assurances, however, are of little consolation to Anna and Maurice Aubree. Their sense of security and serenity has dissipated into the ether.
“I see ourselves as the silent sufferers here,” Anna said. “Who can speak for me? Where can my voice be heard?”
Though she has tried to drown out the drone of diesel generators and 18-wheeler engines with Doris Day tapes rented from the library, sleep in any room of her house comes in fits and starts. That lack of rest exacerbates her challenges with asthma and a sore back.
“I moved up here to maintain my health,” said Anna, who cared for hospitalized veterans on Long Island. “But we’re stuck. You don’t know how we’re praying.”
At the end of January, the two opted to put their house on the market. Ironically, the “For Sale” sign that vibrates in the spring breeze is planted in their front yard just a short walk from a message painted on slate and propped on their front porch that cheerily declares: “A Day in the Country is Worth a Month in Town.”
The thought of uprooting themselves and packing up all of their worldly belongings at this juncture in their lives makes them heartsick.
Even though they don’t blame their neighbors for benefiting from the natural bounty beneath their own land, neither of them can envision continuing to endure a situation where they feel constantly on edge.
“When you’re getting older, it’s extremely stressful and it’s hard all around,” said Maurice, 75, a retired driver for the local school district who admits to “sneaking in a few cries about it.”
“If you don’t laugh, you cry,” he added. “So you better learn how to laugh.”
Their sons, two live in New York and the third in Florida, are helping them sort out their next destination.
“We don’t know where we’re going,” said Anna while giving her pet dog a loving pat on the head. “But you know what? We’re going.”