To Drill or Not To Drill (Part 1)

A Natural Gas Rush in the Northeast Is Forcing Farmers to Choose Between Income and Land

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When Joyce Stone and her husband moved to Dimock, Pennsylvania 34 years ago, they found themselves in the middle of what would be the first of many environmental battles. It was not long after the oil shock of 1973 and there were plans to build a massive energy park in nearby Ararat consisting of ten nuclear and ten coal-fired power plants.

Stone and her husband opposed the idea, and together with a small group of local residents they were able to defeat the proposal. One of the organizers described it as “an amazing example of the ‘power of the people,’ and even more amazing that it happened in Susquehanna County.”

Over the years, there were repeated efforts to exploit the area. Stone and others fended off two attempts to locate low-level radioactive waste sites in the region, one of Pennsylvania’s poorest. She remembers arranging a concert at the local high school auditorium to raise money to fight the dump: More than 400 people showed up and they raised $2,000.

Today, Stone wishes she were ten years younger, because the biggest battle of her life has just begun.

In 2006, Cabot Oil and Gas, a Houston-based energy company, tapped its first natural gas well in Dimock. Since then, the Marcellus Shale, a geologic formation that stretches from New York to Tennessee and is believed to contain some of the world’s largest reserves of natural gas, has become something of a household name. Last year, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection issued 1,984 Marcellus Shale drilling permits, 763 of which were tapped. In New York, drilling hasn’t yet begun, but the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation is expected to start issuing permits this year. The potential threat to New York City’s drinking water – its reservoirs are located within the Marcellus Shale – has been a flashpoint in the debate over gas drilling.

Last spring, Stone reached out to some of her neighbors after learning that Cabot was considering storing 55-gallon drums of methanol at a site close to her home. Methanol – a flammable toxin that can cause blindness if consumed – is used to prevent pipes from freezing, and Stone was worried that the tanks were too close to residential areas. She thought it would be wise to ask Cabot how they were planning to store the chemicals and what they would do in the event of a spill.

“I thought, well, I’ll see if I can get people on the road to go in with me to talk to the Cabot representatives,” she said.

She didn’t hear back from anyone and finally called one of her neighbors who said he’d rather go on his own. Another told her she’d go with her only if Stone wasn’t rude and disrespectful.

“These are people I’ve known for 34 years, half my life,” Stone told me. “The people who’ve known me and my children growing up and who knew my husband and loved my husband and who are just treating me like I’m the enemy or something.”

Previous efforts to organize opposition to the nuclear waste industry were far less complicated in at least one respect: Today, nearly everyone in Dimock has leased their land to Cabot and has a personal investment in the promise of gas drilling. Dozens of gas wells were drilled in 2009, and Cabot has plans to tap at least 70 more in 2010. “Definitely the factor of people getting money for their land I think has to be the difference,” Stone said.

150-Foot Tall Drilling Rigs

On the surface, gas drilling doesn’t seem to have changed Dimock. The landscape – a patchwork of forest, farmland, and rolling hills – obscures many of the 150-foot-tall drilling rigs. Because vantage points are rare, one could easily drive through town – the center of which is little more than a blinking yellow light and a one-room post office – without noticing a single well. But evidence of seismic testing is everywhere. The irregularity of the terrain has forced gas companies to drop by helicopter what are known as “shot hole drills” over a large area to measure gas depth. Explosives are placed in the holes and the sound waves measured. Orange cables, connected to geophone receivers and energy source stations, line the roads. According to Stone, every day for two months helicopters circled her property.

Indeed, few in this township of 1,500 have been left untouched. Last November, 15 families in Dimock announced that they were suing Cabot for poisoning their water, and that exposure to toxic chemicals related to natural gas drilling had led to personal injury, including neurological and gastrointestinal complications. The lawsuit was prompted, in part, by the explosion of a drinking water well on New Year’s Day 2009. Investigators later determined that the migration of methane gas released because of faulty well casings had likely caused the explosion. Soon after, neighbors started to report foul smelling tap water the color of unpasteurized cider.

In September, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) fined Cabot $56,650 for three hydraulic fracturing fluid spills that emptied more than 8,000 gallons of a lubricant gel mixed with water at a Dimock drill site. Some of the chemicals leached into a nearby wetland and creek, resulting in a fish die-off. Two months later, the DEP levied an additional fine of $120,000 and ordered the company to provide temporary water supplies to 13 families in the affected area. Meanwhile, the drilling continues.

Environmental Battles Won and Lost

On a cold evening in December I met Stone, a wetlands specialist who lives in a house her husband built after they moved to Dimock in the 1970s (he died ten years ago in a kayaking accident). They came to the area to work as naturalists at the Woodbourne Preserve, a 648-acre parcel of forest and wetlands owned by The Nature Conservancy. Set aside in 1956, it contains the largest remaining stand of old growth forest in northeast Pennsylvania and is home to more than 180 species of birds and nine kinds of salamanders.

The preserve abuts Stone’s property and may be the only swath of land this large that will be spared Cabot’s reach. Not that the company isn’t interested. According to The Nature Conservancy, Cabot representatives have made several offers to drill in Woodbourne. There is still discussion about whether the conservancy will lease the subsurface rights.

Stone is a lively woman in her late sixties with a weathered face and youthful eyes. She has been speaking out on environmental issues since her early twenties and seems to measure her life in terms of environmental battles won and lost. She sees herself as a scientist whose role is to weigh the facts and present them to the public. But she has always taken a clear position in defense of the environment. “She would lay down in front of a bulldozer,” an acquaintance told me.

The question of gas drilling, though, has presented a sweeping challenge to her environmental principles, as it has to many in the region.

“The whole thing is unreal,” she explained. “I’ve worked since I was twenty to try to get clean water and clean air. So many people have. We’ve made such huge strides. Back in Connecticut, where I’m from, so many rivers have been cleaned up. And Pennsylvania. And it’s like the gas industry is just exempt from everything. They are reversing everything and poisoning the rivers that have been so clean now for forty years.”

Yet in October 2008, after holding out longer than most, Stone reluctantly signed a no-surface lease with Cabot; the company can drill underneath her land, but not on it. She’ll avoid the intrusion and impact of having a well pad on her property, but the risk to her water remains. She owns 12 acres and lives on social security, about $10,000 a year. She needed the money. At the same time, all of the landowners around her had leased their land and Stone felt that even if she refused, there was no guarantee that her land and water would be protected. She also believes that there is an environmental case to be made for natural gas – it burns 50 percent cleaner than coal and a third cleaner than petroleum.

Still, it was a decision she made with deep reservations. She told me, “I just felt like I was betraying who I am to do it. Like I was signing my life away.”

Quick Riches & Ground Water Contamination

The promise of quick riches and a regional economic revival has driven a frenzied land rush in New York’s southern tier and much of Pennsylvania since the discovery of the Marcellus Shale. The term “discovery” is slightly misleading, given that for more than 75 years the Marcellus Shale has been known to hold large reserves of gas. It is only in the last few years, however, that unconventional shale gas – trapped in tight rock formations deep underground – has become profitable. The integration of two technological advancements, horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (often referred to as “fracking”), has made shale gas economically viable. It has also made it controversial. The method involves pumping large quantities of water, sand, and chemicals under high pressure into the well bore to shatter the rock and release the gas.

In the Marcellus Shale, it has been reported that more than two-thirds of the fracking fluid (up to three million gallons for each well) stays underground. Meanwhile, the wastewater that comes to the surface, which often contains naturally occurring radioactive materials, must be treated and disposed of. Yet the Safe Drinking Water Act, designed to regulate the injection of fluids underground so that they don’t contaminate drinking water aquifers, does not apply to hydraulic fracturing. The so-called Halliburton Loophole (Halliburton invented fracking), inserted into the 2005 energy bill, essentially said that the EPA no longer had the authority to regulate hydraulic fracturing; the industry has never been forced to disclose the fluids it uses to fracture wells, a major sticking point as it seeks to expand production in the Northeast. Since 2005, the industry has also been exempt from the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and Superfund rules.

The investigative news Web site ProPublica has documented more than a thousand cases of water contamination related to gas drilling, both from spills and underground seepage, across the country. According to the site, “a string of documented cases of gas escaping into drinking water – not just in Pennsylvania but across North America – is raising concerns about the hidden costs of this economic tide and strengthening arguments across the country that drilling can put drinking water at risk.”

Reports of groundwater contamination, however, have not dampened shale gas expansion. Fear of eventual petroleum shortages and the fact that there are large domestic reserves of natural gas have made fracking extraction attractive to investors, politicians, and cash-strapped state and local governments. In October, a Congressional Natural Gas Caucus was formed, led by Pennsylvania Republican Congressman Tim Murphy. The caucus is pushing hard for the passage of the 2009 Natural Gas Act, which would provide funding for natural gas vehicle manufacturing facilities and fueling infrastructure.

Race for Lease Holdings

Environmental groups are not wholly against the practice either. The Sierra Club’s former Executive Director, Carl Pope, has supported natural gas as a so-called “bridge fuel” in the transition from oil and coal to wind and renewables (though many local affiliates are opposed). Robert F. Kennedy Jr., has written that, “a quick conversion from coal to gas is the quickest route for jumpstarting our economy and saving our planet.”

Even though the price of natural gas has remained relatively low and the International Energy Agency has said there will likely be a “looming glut” until at least 2013, the race for lease holdings in the Marcellus Shale has only intensified. In December, Exxon Mobil purchased XTO Energy, which has large holdings in the Marcellus Shale, for $31 billion. Remarkably, the terms of the agreement include an escape clause that says Exxon may back out of the deal if Congress regulates hydraulic fracturing to the point that it becomes “illegal or commercially impracticable.” In the last year, Congress has moved to reverse the exemptions granted the industry in 2005 and the EPA has undertaken its first full review of the controversial drilling method.

Still, many industry observers believe it is only a matter of time before other big players – Dutch Royal Shell, British Petroleum, and Chevron – move in. In rural parts of New York and Pennsylvania, residents are already speaking of a future industrialized landscape, one that will forever alter the character of the region. Small roads will have to accommodate heavy truck traffic – a recent study of gas drilling in Texas found that an average of 592 one-way truck trips were needed for each well. Noise, air, and light pollution (rigs are often active 24 hours a day) are also part of the cumulative impact of gas drilling.

As Brett Chedzoy, a forester with Cornell Cooperative Extension, noted recently, gas drilling is “perhaps the largest rural land issue that we’ve ever been faced with in upstate New York.”

Tuesday: To Drill or Not To Drill (Part II)

(Republished with permission of Earth Island Journal)

Adam Federman is a journalist in New York City. He has written for The Nation, Columbia Journalism Review, and Adirondack Life.