Land Grab: Clean Energy Movement Can Leave Communities Divided

Natural gas exploration brings economic boost and environmental concerns.

ByRich Blake
April 20, 2010, 3:54 PM

April 22, 2010 — -- The push for clean energy came to Deborah Rogers' farm about a year ago. Rogers, who makes goat cheese near Fort Worth, Texas, was working when she noticed something strange. Two baby goats, seemingly curled up sleeping, wouldn't wake up. They were dead.

Around the same time, Rogers began to notice dozens of gas wells popping up around her property. Worried about the possibility of toxic emissions, Rogers launched a crusade for safer drilling and sought help from local officials who weren't exactly sympathetic.

"Everyone made it pretty clear to me," Rogers said. "They said, 'Deborah, you're ruining the party.'"

In speaking up about her concerns Rogers stirred a debate in Fort Worth, one of the cities most affected by natural gas drilling.

Similar debates are happening all over the country.

With the clean energy movement, both within the Obama administration and the oil and gas industry itself, kicking into high gear, landowners and land coalitions from Texas to Pennsylvania are leasing thousands of acres to corporations seeking to drill for natural gas. As fossil fuels go, natural gas is viewed as better for the environment, cost-efficient to extract, and in abundant supply.

The Fort Worth area sits atop the Barnett Shale, a geological formation that is rich in natural gas. It is part of a wide swath of America being scoured by geologists, land leasing operations and energy companies in a modern-day land rush, right out of "There Will Be Blood."

Other such natural gas fields, potentially worth billions of dollars, include the Haynesville Shale south of Shreveport, Louisiana, and the Marcellus Shale, which stretches from West Virginia up into the lower part of New York State.

In Broome County, New York, along the Pennsylvania border, there are hundreds of land coalitions set up to negotiate with "land men," an energy-industry term referring to leasing agents. When the agents knock at the door, ordinary people, sometimes financially downtrodden, find themselves staring at a potential windfall.

Big Money

Ten-year land lease prices can be as a high as $5,000 an acre, and if gas is ever discovered and extracted there are royalties. Simple farmers can become millionaires.

"It's an emotional issue," said Broome County Executive Barbara Fiala. "A lot of this land has been in families for generations. Horse farms, dairy farms. There is a deep love for the land. But this area has been going through tough economic times, so there are those who want to lease, who want drilling. It's the type of thing that can divide a small community."

Take, for example, the story of several long-time friends who for decades shared a hunting lodge not far from Binghamton, New York. Not long ago, they were approached by a firm called Fortuna Energy, which said their property sat on a particularly promising natural gas deposit.

The owners found themselves debating as well as soul-searching: whether to lease the land to Fortuna and scoop up some sweet cash one day -- or hold on dearly to a place that has long been their sanctuary, no matter the financial temptation.

"We had logical concerns, and some of us were split," said Stephen Haust, 42, one of the owners. "But in the end, we put our differences aside and agreed to lease. There was just too much potential upside down the line."

No actual drilling has begun in Broome County, yet, said county executive Fiala. Along with a majority of the county's 19 legislators, Fiala supports drilling -- that is, so long as it is done responsibly.

After a local newspaper ran a story mentioning Fiala's support of drilling she said she got around 400 e-mails. (Broome County has a population of around 200,000.)

"I'd say only about a dozen of those e-mails were negative," Fiala said.

South of Binghamton, which is the largest city in Broome County, the natural gas drilling has begun, in northeastern Pennsylvania. Not all of the activities there would suggest environmental issues are being adequately addressed.

Last fall, Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. was fined $56,650 and part of its operations were suspended by the Department of Environmental Protection because of three chemical spills which polluted a creek and a wetland in Susquehanna County. The accidents were connected to an extraction technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," in which water, sand and chemicals are pumped into the shale.

Landowners Welcome Drilling

Despite concerns of water contamination, noise, road damage and other general disruptions, most land owners generally welcome the push for natural gas, said Chris Denton, an attorney in Elmira, New York specializing in negotiating land lease arrangements with energy companies.

"We can't afford not to drill," said Denton, who represents around 5,000 families spread across 300,000 acres. "This area is hurting economically, so a natural gas boom is something to embrace. That said, everyone wants to do everything possible to make sure it doesn't become the Wild West, and that the environment is protected."

Jim Cruickshank's family has owned hundreds of acres of meadows and forests in Big Indian, New York, in the heart of the Catskill Mountains, going back more than a century. He strongly opposes drilling in the area, home to a protected watershed that supplies New York City's drinking water. However, Cruickshank's personal views have not stopped him from getting involved with a local community group, the Catskills Landowners Association, many of whom want drilling and the financial windfall it might bring.

Others in the Catskills are pushing for an outright drilling ban, while New York state authorities debate how rigorous to make pre-drilling environmental testing for energy companies seeking to make a shale play. So far, environmental hurdles have been stringent enough to prompt most energy companies, such as Cabot and Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake Energy, to pursue opportunities in Pennsylvania, where it is easier to get permission to drill.

The Catskills Landowners Association board, of which Cruickshank is a member, is made up of a spectrum of landowners seeking to band together protect this picturesque valley community while at the same time looking out for their own economic interests. The association is trying to find some way to compensate landowners should drilling not ever take place. Many landowners, Cruickshank said, feel they have paid exorbitant taxes and see gas exploration as long-overdue compensation.

Outright Ban Would Hurt Landowners

An outright ban on drilling, the CLA believes, represents a violation of landowners' rights.

"We can't have our cake and eat it too," Cruickshank conceded. "In other words, if we supported the ban outright, it would hurt our case for just compensation, either in an individual or class action law suit, for the taking of a landowner's right to do what they want with their land."

It's a difficult issue, Cruickshank said.

"Personally, I never want to see drilling happen up here," he said. "But these are my neighbors and I see their point of view."

Back in Texas, goat farmer Deborah Rogers is not giving up her fight to protect the environment. But she's not out to go to war with her neighbors either.

Rogers said she wants to continue working with the energy companies to find a compromise. She knows she has little power to stop the companies altogether.

"I don't have anything against drilling," she said. "They have a right to drill."

"I'm simply asking them to drill in a responsible manner."

With additional reporting by Dalia Fahmy

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