Marcellus on the farm
Article by S. Tom Bond, Retired Chemistry Professor and Resident Farmer, Lewis County, WV
It’s no secret that I don’t want Marcellus development on my farm. Here is why:
In 1962, four of us, my sister, her husband, my wife and I, bought an old farm in a remote place about 3 miles from Jane Lew. For over 50 years, all my spare time, and every cent we made from the farm went back into improvements. Today, my wife and I own it. It is fenced with modern high-tensile fence, there are cattle guards in critical places where roads and fences intersect, and it is very clean. We have the essential equipment and quality livestock, and space for 55 to 60 head of brood cows. After 50 years of planning and scrimping and work on our part, we hope to pass this land along to a new generation.
I have developed methods suitable to medium size hilly farms which I discuss at this website and have written a book about my life farming and changes in the community which appears here. And I did these things while teaching Chemistry and helping raise four children.
The oil and gas was “severed” from the surface in 1934, 80 years ago, by the second predecessor-in-title, Dr. Howell. He was a physician in Buckhannon and his heirs live in Colorado. I called three decades ago, and the granddaughter who spoke for the heirs couldn’t even distinguish which of her grandfather’s farms I was talking about. So much for any responsibility to the community.
In Howell’s time, there were hand built rigs, pipelines dug by hand (and not so intrusive), equipment hauled only in good weather and by oxen without roads.
Marcellus Shale drilling is a different beast than what I had to deal with from the four Benson (5000 foot) wells drilled on the 500 acres in my tenure. Benson wells took a few hundred square feet, and required a lightly rocky road. The wells were drilled in a couple of months, and reclamation allowed some grass production to return to the surface, however there was some dust, and a little storm drainage. Other effects include the requirment for constant access by well tenders, oil removal, occasional replacement of transmission lines, open spaces for lines through forest land. One interesting fact is that all the wells in the community have the same lock and the keys are passed around freely, so you can not maintain control of access to your farm. Little negotiation with them is possible for things like remediation of the roads, but they are good about coming to relocate pipelines when you need to drive fence posts into the ground, or you are laying drainage ditches. And they do a good job of keeping the well sites “clean.”
Benson wells are tame in comparison to Marcellus Shale development. The pond that was used on the Benson wells could not have been used to park a truck larger than a pickup. Ponds today can hold two or more dozen of the big tankers they use and are several times deeper. The well pad size is in acres, not hundreds of square feet. The pad and the road is heavily rocked and will never produce decent pasture again. The pipeline rights-of-way are wide enough to accommodate very large equipment. Trees won’t be allowed to produce timber until the lines are abandoned. If it is economically feasible to remove the pipelines, the ground will be disturbed again then and it will be decades before the forest can recover after that, if ever.
On this land now diverted to drilling, there will be endless dust on the pasture and meadow - hundreds of truckloads of water and chemicals in and out, many pickup loads of workers. Bright light at night, and high decibel sounds constantly negatively affecting the cattle. Storm water carrying silt and chemicals from the well pad and the roads will end up diverted into productive areas of the farm, and worst this adverse process can go on for years if wells are drilled one at a time.
Many people have the idea that cattle are tough. While they can survive some harsh conditions which they are adapted for in natural settings like cold, hunger, and some predation, the unnatural industrial drilling on farmlands with non-natural (chemical) insult does hurt production. The farm business is already operating on a very thin margin.
What if somebody in my chain of title made an agreement with somebody who is the predecessor in the gas companies chain of title for something much different than what I am getting from him? Is there any precedent? There certainly is. It was done for strip mining. The first strip mining paid nothing to the surface owner. The coal was sold with the necessary rights to remove. No one had contemplated this new technology, so the law was changed so that the surface owner received what is now known as “surface rights.”
Decades ago I learned that the Corps of Engineers maintained a stable of appraisers to value land that they take for various projects. These individuals are certified and used over and over again. They are trained to appraise at just the least amount the landowner might accept, rather than fight in court. I took time to study the matter at a couple of sites, and found that almost anyone who went to court received more, but had to endure great stress to do so. Some oil and gas companies also offer “damages,” sometimes like the Corps of Engineers offer, sometimes an arbitrary figure, but not nuanced nor acknowledging the factors above.
Sometimes dead cattle are paid for, but not ones that “aren’t doing well,” abortions, dusted hay, dead pets, sickness (NEVER admit guilt), or losses from all the other subsidiary complaints you hear about. Damage to game and fish (note: about one-eighth of my farm income is from hunting rights) does not come into the picture, despite complaints from hunters and fishermen, nor does destruction of scenic value, or the retirement industry, or the edge effect on forest creatures due to so much more subdivision.
There will be a significant reduction in property value. Who wants to buy a farm with a well pad on it that enables the driller to fool around for decades on one well after another? With reclamation that is not renovation, repeated for each well, many times over? With the uncertainty of loss of water, damage from fumes, from toxic ponds and compressor stations? Am I alone in this claim?
Read “Fracking Boom Gives Banks Mortgage Headaches.“ The disgusting part of the article is that it is worried about banks, but there is not a word about property owners. I suppose landowners are like grass that has to accept being eaten off by cows. (And stepped on and the other thing cows do on grass.) In the places where oil and gas has been extracted before, there is no mineral rights for the surface owners! Such rights are long gone. See also the American Banker video here.
Property values will crash if buyers can’t get financing because of the extraction, as is now the case in some places. And in some places the farming operation can’t be insured because of the “industrial operation” being conducted on it. Externalized cost is very near theft, and not paying for damages is a form of denying the effect of the extraction. Shale drilling is like an invading army in power, but unlike a wise invading army, it doesn’t strive to preserve eventual productive value.