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Pennsylvania Fracking: A History Of Shale Gas Drilling, As Told By The People Who Live There

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Do Pennsylvanians love or hate fracking? Yes.

The nationwide release of "Promised Land," Gus Van Sant's drama about the natural gas industry and its overtures to a rural Pennsylvania town, has renewed focus on the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing -- the deep-impact drill-and-blast technique used to extract gas from underground shale.

Fracking has helped bring renewed economic momentum to places where it's in use, including the Pennsylvania shale country, but opponents say it could be having disastrous effects on public health and the environment.

The Huffington Post's own reporting, conducted on the ground in Pennsylvania and through email correspondence with residents of the state, has turned up a wide range of opinions. To coincide with Lynne Peeples's feature on the subject, we asked HuffPost readers who live in Pennsylvania what their experience with the natural gas industry has been like -- particularly if they were ever approached about leasing their land for drilling purposes. We heard from people who leased their land and are glad they did; people who leased and later regretted it; and people who never signed a lease, despite being courted by industry reps.

Below, you can find a cross-section of letters from our Pennsylvania readers. You'll meet some who are excited for the future of energy, some who see nothing good coming from the fracking boom, and a few who are somewhere in the middle.

If you'd like to share your own experience with natural gas drilling, or show us photos of fracking in your town, send us a note at openreporting@huffingtonpost.com.

'SORRY WE SIGNED? YOU BET'

Some of the letters we received came from people who'd granted drilling rights on their property and have since developed mixed feelings about it. Not all of these letters came from opponents of fracking -- some, like the letter below, were from people who felt they could have reaped stronger financial benefits.

In 2007, my husband and I leased our property to a gas company [for less than $100 per acre]. This was before any indication of the Marcellus Shale extraction. We really can only blame ourselves for impetuously taking the sum. The land man worked on our base fears, greed and envy, I'm embarrassed to say. He basically told us that even if we didn't sign, our neighbors would, and all the gas would be sucked from under our property anyway.

We had heard of other farms that had been leased for years, and nothing ever came of it, and it seemed like the kind of extra little income that generations of farmers have received, like tree farming or wetland conservation revenue. The lump sum we got paid covered our real estate taxes, so it seemed sensible. We never dreamed that we were at the beginning of a gas boom. Thank goodness my husband had the good sense to insist the contract not automatically renew after five years. For nearly five years we had to control the bitterness we felt when wiser people got $2,500 and more per acre. Right up to the last stretch of our contract, we worried they’d sink a pilot hole that would keep our contract in force with a pittance for royalty.

At present we have no lease on the property we live on. None of the companies here now -- Cabot, Williams/WPX, Carrizo -- are interested in leasing us, although we certainly would, because we are surrounded by leased property anyway. I feel like a card that is not yet in play, as many do.

I think the gas industry is a necessary burden, and feel that after a few quick and dirty wells, the industry here is taking more precaution. I sympathize with those whose wells were ruined, and who don’t feel they’ve been justly compensated, but I believe most of the detractors are wealthy to begin with, or have never worked hard to own property and don’t have a say in how I manage mine.

I would add that environmental impact is a reality, in the oceans, the wilderness or my backyard. I am impressed, actually, by the massive amount of work the crews do here and the large scale of landscaping, for lack of a better word. Much of it is an improvement, and the disruption is temporary. I have never objected to the sound of tractors, logging equipment, stone saws and such, as that is the sound of people making a living.

Carol Teodori, a reader who owns property in Washington, PA, had this to say:

I signed a lease to allow fracking under my 24-acre property. I was pursued for a couple of years before I signed. I didn't know what fracking was. I thought it was a gas well like the ones I have seen in PA for years. I was given $6000 and promised a royalty of 15% if and when the gas under me was sold.

I have learned much about fracking since signing that lease. I was part of a group that opposed allowing drilling in our municipality. We attended many information sessions that were held and listened to the stories of people who had drilling sites very near them. They told of sicknesses and contamination of their water.

If I knew then what I know now, I would not have signed.

A third reader simply said:

We signed a lease for very little money BEFORE any locals knew about Marcellus Shale. We had college tuition payments to make, and truly didn't even fathom there was a possibility of companies actually drilling on our land. Sorry we signed? You bet!

'I WOULD DEFINITELY DO IT AGAIN'

Other readers told us that while they may or may not have reservations about fracking, they believe they made the right decision to sign a drilling lease. Vicky Ayers of central PA wrote:

I did lease land within the last ten years, although there has been no gas development on it yet. I debated whether to lease; however, there are legal mechanisms that can be used by the gas and oil companies and the surrounding landowners that allow them, through court action, to take the resources from a reluctant owner's property and pay minimum mandated royalties on the gas or oil they take. Most of the time, several properties have to be combined to form a drilling unit big enough to allow a well (640 acres in PA). If one owner refuses to lease, the others can all be deprived of the income they would have received if that owner had participated. To protect their right to profit from their own property, the reluctant owner's rights are forcibly purchased, almost like an eminent domain situation.

By leasing directly, I was able to get substantially more money than I would have, had I allowed them to take the resources through court order. Crass or not, my thinking was this: They are going to go get that gas, one way or another. I can be paid a little or I can be paid a lot. I chose a lot.

In the area in which my property lies, there has been development of these resources for years, and so far no evidence of environmental issues, barring a small stream that took a hit from a leaking frack water truck.

Another reader said:

I have leased several parcels of land, although the majority of my property was purchased with leases in place. I have studied development in depth, and believe that modern lease payments provide fair compensation for risks in drilling, as they exceed or approach the value of the land itself. The risks with fracking are far overstated, and the real, but more mundane, risks of spills and methane migration are within an acceptable limit given our experience so far.

I believe the underreported aspect of the shale boom is the lack of understanding among landowners regarding lease terms and the business aspects of development. Oil and gas leases are incredibly complicated, and we in PA have very little case law to interpret terms. There are no local attorneys with suitable knowledge and experience in the field. As such, many oil and gas companies take advantage of the situation to tie up leaseholds with questionable tactics. The reality is that oil and gas companies do not really negotiate lease terms. In the best cases, they compete with each other, which might provide a slightly better lease for a landowner. But in the vast majority of cases, landowners do not understand the contracts they are signing.

I live in the heart of the prime development area, and can tell you that far in excess of 90% of folks here are leased and nearly all want to be leased -- me included, despite my concerns about the industry and their unfair treatment of landowners.

Read more interviews with Pennsylvania residents here.

E.J.K., a reader from northeast Pennsylvania who asked to be identified by his initials, told us:

Yes, I did sign a lease and I would definitely do it again. The process of drilling for natural gas, which includes fracking, provides numerous jobs for those individuals living in depressed areas of PA. Not only does it provide jobs for the locals, the additional employment improves the local economy via the services industry, i.e. restaurants, gas stations, motels and banks. It's a "home grown product" and not something that has to be imported at a higher price.

Any time human beings are involved in any type of endeavor, there are going to be mishaps. Fortunately, the mishaps are few and far between with fracking.

A fourth reader told us that while her uncle leased his land and has no regrets, she personally feels less sure about it.

I don't own land, but my uncle does, and I will one day inherit it. He leased his land for fracking up in Sullivan County, PA. He is an outdoors man (trout fishing and bow hunting) and wanted a place in the mountains where he could enjoy doing all of this. He lived and still lives in Chester County, PA.

When the gas companies originally came around his area, leasing people's land to test for drilling, my uncle did not want to sign. He was concerned about the environmental damages. He was not holding out for monetary purposes. However, every single other property owner next to his land decided to lease. At that point, he figured he should go ahead and sign, because if there were going to be any environmental damages, it was going to happen to his land anyway -- so why not receive some money for it. Since he was one of the last people to lease his land out, he made a lot more per acre then the other people around him.

The gas company found natural gas on his property and built two towers on his land. According to the gas workers, his land has enough gas for the next 150 years. However, due to Pennsylvania legislative issues and pipeline concerns, his gas did not start getting pumped until November. He is expected to see royalties sometime in the spring. So far he does not regret his decision. About a year or two after he leased his land, he and his wife fell on some hard times, like most people in the nation, and that money really helped them out. My uncle has also said it is really helping out the locals in the area, which is a rather depressed area. Everyone he has talked to has been satisfied with everything.

Personally, I'm concerned that the gas companies are going to take advantage of my uncle. The lawyer that my uncle was consulting was actually an environmental lawyer who was opposed to the drilling. In my opinion, I would have hired an attorney from Philadelphia to handle the negotiations. Also, since my uncle does not live up there, I'm concerned that the gas companies will only report part of what they are extracting from his land.

And a reader from Centre County, who asked to be identified by his initials -- W.E.S. -- wrote to say:

I do own property in Central Pennsylvania and I do currently have a gas lease on it. The ground is not being drilled on yet. If drilling does occur, I would not be afraid of fracking. This process is known to be successful in maximizing production of natural gas and the dangers, if they exist, are still being debated. This much I know -- coal production is down, we don't want to build nuclear power plants, solar panels flopped (Solyndra), wind-powered generators are suspect for output as well as environmental impact, and we are still left with a country that needs energy to exist. We are a country of roughly 315 million people who consume an average of 2.28 gallons of oil per day. [ed. note: Based on current estimates of U.S. population and 2012 estimates of oil consumption, Americans in fact consume an average of about 2.48 gallons per person per day.] That energy is used to get to work, plow our fields, and build and maintain our whole cultural infrastructure, and without it we would perish.

So do I support fracking? Darn tooting. Fewer holes in the ground than conventional wells, creates American jobs, generates tax revenue and keeps us from sending money to countries that hate us. I have not seen the movie "Promised Land" but I have read some of the reviews. Hollywood should stick to sex and violence, they are better at it.

'WE WILL NEVER LEASE OUR LAND'

Finally, there were the readers who preferred not to have their land be used for drilling purposes. A reader from Lycoming County, in north-central PA, told us:

We did not sign a lease because we have concerns about fracking. We likewise did not allow seismographing to be done on our property. We are very frustrated that we may develop health issues related to unsafe gas industry practices, and we believe the value of our property has been hurt by the industry's presence. I must admit that making money from leasing/drilling has been a temptation, especially since everyone around us has leased.

A reader from northwest Pennsylvania, near the Ohio line, wrote to say:

We are located on the edge of the Marcellus shale, but our land is over the Utica shale. About two years ago, we were approached by a leasing company that offered us $50 per acre with a five-year lease. I turned it down, and few days later they came back with an offer of $100 per acre, a five-year lease and advance payment for all five years. Again I turned it down. They kept contacting me until I told them I would have my son, who is an attorney with experience in oil and gas leases, review the lease. I have not heard from them since. My son says that right now they are more interested in Marcellus shale, but with huge potential for Utica, he is sure they will be contacting us again.

Patricia Petrosko from Middlesex Township told us:

I am a resident of Butler County in western PA and I own 25 acres. I have received no less than 12 letters from self-proclaimed 'landmen' acting on behalf of various drilling companies (Rex, Chesapeake) attempting to persuade me to sign my surface rights away to them -- for my benefit, of course. One of the letters actually stated that, if I didn't sign a lease agreement, they would be able to drill horizontally under my property anyway.

My husband and I bought the property six years ago because we love the forest and the clean water from our well. Our horses, dogs, cats and chickens also enjoy the property and we will never lease our land. How many wells are needed per square acre? It’s a territorial contest and we the landowners are the resounding losers.

I am about to retain an attorney to be able to help me to safeguard my water and my land. I am worried because the corporations are ruthless. They use 'land-men' in a divide-and-conquer technique and contact landowners individually so that folks are caught off-guard and are unable to form a co-op where they could possibly have better bargaining power, assuming they wished to have a well placed on their property.

Alice Zinnes, a reader in northeast PA, weighed in:

I was offered a lease (I have about 7 acres) but refused it.

I love my home, my land, my area, the animals, birds and fish living near me, and all living things on this planet. No matter how much money I would have been offered, I would never accept a lease to frack my land. Instead, I have been actively fighting against the abomination of fracking. The more I learn about it, the more horrified I am that our government is allowing the destruction of our country, the contamination of our water, air and land, the onslaught of the strangest diseases, the loss of traditional jobs, the increase in greenhouse gas emissions, the spreading of silica dust... the list goes on and on. In my opinion, the only reason fracking is being allowed in this country is that a few CEOs of the richest industries in the world are getting richer, and with their wealth, and the wealth of their companies, they are buying off our politicians. It's that simple.

Finally, Sandra Folzer of Tioga County wrote to us about her experience.

I own one hundred acres in Tioga County, PA above the Marcellus Shale. I have had this beautiful land since 1969. I was offered lots of money to lease my land to gas drillers. Though I could have made about half a million dollars, I did not want to see my beautiful land destroyed and my water ruined. Some neighbors in Bradford County have lost their clean water and many are moving out. So I believe I made the right decision. Luckily, I am a retired teacher and have savings, so I can resist the temptation of so much money. Some of my farmer neighbors signed leases long ago for $5 an acre and so they made nothing.

I understand why some folks signed leases, as they needed the money. The problem is that whatever my neighbors do has an impact on my life. I don't have to have drilling on my property to have my wells polluted, since the fracking fluid can migrate. So far, I have been lucky.

I did see "Promised Land," and was disappointed that it didn't reveal more of the facts about the impact of drilling. The movie never showed an active well, the terrible noise, like jet engines running constantly for days, or the irritating bright lights that shine through the night. It did not show how forests are being ruined by cement pads, which also affect the wildlife. It did not show how the increase in jobs is a myth. Most of the gas drillers come from Texas and Oklahoma. Only the poor-paying jobs, like driving trucks, are given to locals. And these are temporary jobs. So many jobs are lost from hunters, fishers, campers and tourists who do not want to gaze at gas wells. Plus, some rivers and streams have been polluted. And the movie did not talk about health issues.

Unfortunately it is difficult to have folks speak openly about their problems because of the gag rules which the gas companies insist upon if they pay for any health costs.

Sandra also took the picture that appears at the top of this page, as well as the photos in the slideshow below. Of the top picture, she writes: "This picture was taken November 2009, when the well was drilled. This is methane being burned off, causing loads of greenhouse gas. The thin plastic sheet is supposed to hold the leftover fracking fluid, highly carcinogenic and possibly radioactive. This is right next to a farm with a stream just past the holding tanks. The chemicals can easily leak into the stream. Cows graze next to this site. This could be your farm."

Some letters have been edited for length and clarity.

Around the Web

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