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Drill First, Questions Later

Hannah Faddis is a legal intern with the Mountain Watershed Association.

This past April, The New York Times reported that gas companies are offering hefty sums to landowners in Pennsylvania and New York for the rights to drill for natural gas in the Marcellus shale formation, now that the combination of $100/barrel crude oil prices and new horizontal-drilling technology has made it profitable to drill 5,000 to 9,000 feet below the surface.

But at a local workshop on gas development in Somerset, Pennsylvania, on Monday, none of the 80 or so local landowners who showed up seemed to share this excitement. "Where were you when these vultures came around on January 1st," one questioner asked me. Although the Times reported that gas companies had been offering some families as much as $2,100 per acre for leases to their gas rights, most of the people at the workshop hadn't been offered anywhere near that amount, and many are overwhelmed negotiating with swarms of landsmen from competing gas companies, without reliable advice. Many landowners have caved to the pressure and signed leases for long periods of time—and relatively small sums.

This rush of gas development brings with it a host of new problems. While many landowners are familiar with the shallow gas wells that are common throughout this part of Pennsylvania—often occupying no more land than a small minivan—the wells for the Marcellus shale could leave footprints that span up to 20 acres. Few of the gas companies mention that fact. The Times's piece alluded to some of these concerns, but glossed over them fairly quickly:

Keith Eckel, 61, a grain farmer with 700 acres in northeastern Pennsylvania, said he had not decided whether to let the companies drill on his property. “Farmers have taken care of this land all their lives and don’t want to see it destroyed,” he said. …

But many farmers and retirees in rural Pennsylvania appear excited that their lives are about to change.

The destruction that Eckel mentions amounts to more than just deforestation, erosion, and surface occupation, though. The gas that's in the shale is contained in small pockets, and operators use a process called ‘fracing’—or, hydraulic fracturing—to crack open these pockets with pressurized water and sand. Each well can use anywhere from one million to three million gallons of water. Where the water will come from, and where the waste will go when it is pumped out of the wells, is often not even discussed with the landowners.

Already, it seems some operators are shrugging off environmental regulations and just taking water from local streams and putting it right back when they’re done. And, even where the waste water is being properly directed to local treatment plants, there's concern across the Marcellus region about what the ‘frac water’ might contain—"salt, metals and radioactive particles" have been mentioned as possibilities. For now, though, the boom continues unabated, as one gas heavyweight, Range Resources, announced Tuesday that it had signed a $175-million pipeline deal for the 1 million acres of Marcellus land it has already acquired.

--Hannah Faddis