Susan Phillips and Kerry Grens take you to two counties in northeastern Pennsylvania that have reacted to gas drilling in drastically different ways.
The rush on natural gas in the rich Marcellus Shale of Pennsylvania has exploded over the last year in certain pockets of the state. Drilling has created boom towns in some rural places more accustomed to cows than truck traffic. But in other cases push back from residents and regulatory groups has stalled drilling. In the first installment of our week-long series, The Shale Game, we take you to two counties that have responded to the industry in drastically different ways. Kerry Grens and Susan Phillips report.
Comparison of wells listed by Pa DEP as active in Bradford County (1011 wells to the left) and Wayne County Pa. (9 wells to the right). See a map of all wells listed as active in Pa here. [Source: Pa Department of Environmental Protection records]
Downtown Towanda, the seat of Bradford County along the Susquehanna River and ground zero for natural gas drilling in the state.
Traffic backs up on side streets with cars waiting to sneak between the near constant stream of truck traffic on Main Street. To Cindy Wilcox, whose jewelry store sits smack dab in the center of town, those trucks mean business.
Wilcox: I started doing gas jewelry last Christmas, basically for the local people, the landowners. Then we started getting more business coming in with the drillers themselves.
The most popular item is a drill bit keychain. It’s brass, plated with nickel and gold, and sells for sixty nine dollars.
Grens: What’s the one you’re wearing?
Wilcox: Diamonds and rubies of course. We’ve got emeralds in the window. I have sapphires, rubies, just plain diamond. Small diamond, big diamond, $250 to $2,000, or whatever!
Selling to gas workers has boosted business for Wilcox 25 percent. She isn’t the only one. Tony Ventello, the executive director of the Bradford County Progress Authority, says restaurants, hotels, gas stations – you name it – are bustling.
Ventello: It’s been overwhelming…Bradford County, which is basically an agronomy based rural economy, leads the state in new job creation. More than 2,000 as of right now.
The County has had more than 250 wells drilled into the Marcellus Shale this year — making it the state’s busiest county.
Bradford County is mostly rural and forested, with little industry before the gas rush. Many families have been here for generations, and they’ve struggled economically. Marilyn Guffey grew up on a Bradford County dairy farm.
Guffey: I know a lot of farmers are not milking cows. They’re driving trucks. They were the first ones to be hired from the gas companies. There’s been an influx of money from the leasing. You see a lot of improvements.
Guffey: I’m also concerned about out quality of life here. We’ve seen an influx of people. A lot of truck traffic. And the whole culture of living is going to impact the county.
Madden: This is an example of where a road was destroyed and then temporarily fixed to allow the gas business to continue.
Mark Madden drives the back roads around Towanda up to his property on a hill across the river. Drilling pads and water reservoirs dot the hillside. Madden is an agent with the Penn State Extension Office. He does a lot of educational work on natural gas as well as research on the environmental impacts of drilling.
Madden’s not just doing work related to natural gas, he also leased his land for drilling. Three wells will be dug, on this nine-acre gravel lot that used to be a forest.
Madden: At first we grimaced. No doubt about that. We’re all about trees here.
Madden: When we signed a lease did we think we’d be standing here today talking about development at it’s location? Absolutely not.
Grens: What did you think?
Madden: That’s a good question. What did we think? You know, we thought hey, there was a possibility. You don’t kid yourself, you think they’re going to drill a well, royalty income.
Madden says he doesn’t regret leasing his land. People in Bradford County always made their living from the land – farming, cutting timber, or mining coal. Natural gas is just the latest.
Madden: You don’t know how soon it is before drilling’s going to move to your immediate area. It will. They’re not going to leave much of this untouched. It’s coming. It’s coming for everybody.
Unless, of course, you’re in Wayne County.
By Susan Phillips:
Imagine you own property in the Poconos. One day a man walks up offering three thousand bucks an acre to lease the natural gas beneath your land, plus royalties of 15 percent.
For some in Wayne County, Pennsylvania, the answer is a vehement no.
This hilly area is crossed by streams feeding into the Delaware River. The water here often ends up flowing out of taps in Philadelphia and New York City. It’s dairy country, but these days most residents work in retail. More and more, the hills are dotted with the houses of ex-pat New Yorkers like Steve Mavroudis. The former diner owner likes to feed the deer
Mavroudis: Hi precious, what’s a matter you want some bread? Hi sweetheart, you want some bread? They know me. Ok, I’m going to give them some bread.
Mavroudis lives in the tiny town of Sherman with his wife, his parrot Cherry, and his two dogs.
He began to get letters from the gas company about a year ago. Their first offer was $600 dollars. Then about six months ago, the gas man came knocking and the offer had jumped to $2600 dollars an acre.
Mavroudis: Oh he came one night and I didnt know who the hell it was, it was a pick-up truck. So I pulled my gun out, its the truth. So I screamed from my bedroom window who are you? He says I’m from the oil company. I says I told you guys I’m not signing up, leave the property get out of here. I says no one wants to sign up here get out of here. So he left.
Mavroudis says he won’t lease his mineral rights at any price. Several years ago, gas companies began offering landowners 25 dollars an acre plus royalties of 12 percent. Now, some give $3,500 dollars an acre and royalties of 16 percent.
Mavroudis is part of a small but vocal group of residents who oppose drilling because of the process known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”
To get at the gas, drillers send a mixture of water, sand and chemicals under high pressure deep into the earth. It’s the chemicals that have Mavroudis worried.
In fact, the Delaware River Basin Commission, recently put a temporary moratorium on all drilling in the basin until it decides on its own regulations.
But drilling has its staunch supporters in Wayne County. David Jones runs a canoe business along the Delaware. He bought land simply to lease it to the gas companies, and he’s furious about the drilling moratorium imposed by a Commission he says is overstepping its bounds.
Jones: This is America, this is not the Bolsheviks seizing the Winter Palace in the Russian Revolution this is the United States of America this belongs to us, and they can call me a greedy landowner, I think making money is what America was built on. Jones says concerns about the chemicals are just hype by overzealous environmentalists.
And in Wayne County, you don’t have to own land with gas underneath it to think the economic benefits of drilling outweigh the environmental risks.
Drilling jobs start at $40,000 dollars a year, and can easily reach $60,000 with overtime. In the Philly suburbs, such pay might seem routine. But in Wayne County, it could be life-changing, especially for dairy farmers who have had to sell off cows as milk prices plummet.
Steve Mavroudis’ neighbor Don Tracy says he also won’t lease his mineral rights to the gas industry. But he says he’s sympathetic with those who do.
Tracy: This is a very poor area and I can’t argue with farmers who’ve leased their land, they work seven days a week, 16 hours a day, they don’t have kids who want to take over the farms and here’s their chance when someone says I’m going to give you a million dollars upfront and a chance to make more millions.”
Only about half a dozen exploratory wells have been drilled in Wayne County. Several major gas players have sold their holdings as a result of the moratorium. The Delaware River Basin Commission plans to release their proposed regulations in mid-October. They’ll be followed by public hearings, which should be contentious.