Evaluate fracking risks, rewards before signing a lease
Acloudy stream of water courses from the kitchen faucet in Carol French’s rural Bradford County, Pa., farmhouse. French says her water is contaminated as a result of horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, conducted during the past few years to capture the rich pockets of natural gas beneath her small dairy farm. Today, concerned for their health, the family no longerdrinks their water.
Reports of health and environmental issues such as those the French family has experienced are not uncommon in areas where fracking has been implemented. Yet the oil and natural gas companies that conduct hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania say such negative reports have nothing to do with them and the extraction processes they employ. Furthermore, the state has no confirmed cases of private well contamination that resulted from fracking, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
For her part, Carol French says she wishes she had never signed the five-year lease Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake Energy Corporation offered her six years ago. While she ultimately pocketed $13,600 as a result of the decision, she says the profit came at too high a cost.
Ronald Coyer, an attorney in Slippery Rock, Pa., says the research he’s seen regarding fracking indicates it is not the process itself that contaminates water supplies. Rather, surface spills and workers using sloppy or unsafe practices most often contribute to the problems, he says.
"If it’s 3 o’clock in the morning and it’s 20°F out and that thing’s leaking over there, well, we’ll get to it," he says. "Sad to say, but that’s human nature, and there are going to be companies that do that. We haven’t seen any of that around here as of yet, but we probably will. The more they drill, the more likely that those things will happen."
In hindsight. Carolyn Knapp says health and environmental issues do exist as a result of fracking. Like French, Knapp and her husband signed leases with Chesapeake Energy Corporation six years ago to extract natural gas from the soils beneath their organic dairy farm near Towanda, Pa. It
seemed like a good deal when they signed two leases on 300-plus acres. One lease was for $85 per acre and the second was for $750 an acre.
Knapp had a change of heart when hundreds of large trucks weighed down with drilling equipment began to rumble past her family’s home daily on the narrow gravel road designed for sedans and pickups.
"Until it happens in your community, it is hard to understand the impact it has on your lifestyle," Knapp says. "Just getting to work, getting out on the roads, is difficult."
Coyer says the amount of water he sees being hauled to and from well sites is mind-boggling. He asks the question: If a well site requires 8 million gallons of water for the fracking process, how many trucks does it take to move that water at 4,000 gal. a truck? "The numbers get pretty oppressive at that point," he says.
Worse yet are the pollution, air, soil and water issues fracking creates, Knapp says. "The list of risks involved with this process was not disclosed to us," she contends.
"Shareholders get informed, but landowners are not informed. It is my opinion that the industry fraudulently misrepresented the process to us. The reality is nothing like how they explain it when they approach you to lease," she adds.
Coyer stresses to landowners that they need to invest time and energy in educating themselves thoroughly on the pros and cons associated with the fracking industry before they ever sign a lease.
"Often the first questions I get from a landowner are, ‘Can the water be protected?’ and ‘How is it protected?’ There’s a lot of information out there—some good, some bad—as to how that’s done," Coyer says.
Scientists’ views. Fred Baldassare, who owns Echelon Applied Geoscience Consulting in Murrysville, Pa., says no energy source is without some level of risk.
"Unfortunately, denial and emotion trump facts and science. Too often, a line in the sand is drawn with one camp saying there is never a problem and the other saying there are always problems," he notes, adding: "Things are never that straight-forward and simple."
When incidents are alleged, Baldassare says each one must be investigated "at the site-specific level with data interpretations based on sound science, not emotion." He adds that the vast majority of alleged contamination incidents he has investigated reveal temporary disturbances to the groundwater system, "if there’s an impact at all, and there are no incidents where hydraulic fracturing fluids have migrated from the hydraulically fractured formation into the groundwater system."
Sometimes fracking does impact property and property values. In a 2011 editorial for the Niagara Gazette in Niagara Falls, N.Y., attorney Elizabeth Radow points out the potential negatives for home- and landowners. She writes that some banks won’t provide construction loans or mortgage loans for property impacted by gas drilling.
Fracking isn’t currently employed in New York state but is being evaluated by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration.
Coyer says landowners must know what a drilling company is and isn’t allowed to do. "You have to understand the process of sealing off groundwater supplies and the protections they have to put in place."
Kathleen Neset agrees. She is in the rare position of experiencing the oil and natural gas development currently under way in North Dakota from two angles—that of farmer and geologist.
"As a scientist and as a farmer who lives on the land, I believe it [fracking] is safe and effective," Neset contends. However, she is not unaware of the potential problems associated with fracking.
"My roads are a mess," Neset says. "I live on a gravel road three miles outside of town, and there were several times last spring my mailman couldn’t bring me my mail. Dust can be a big issue. Just the volume of truck traffic is a problem."
Baldassare says he believes the oil and gas industry have made significant strides in the past few years to improve its environmental footprint.
"There’s no source of energy in this country without some impact, but done right, natural gas offers the best possible option when you consider environmental impact, energy demand and American energy independence," he says.
Neset references the experiences of frontiersmen who settled the West. "What did the homesteaders feel like when roads came through and the expanse was interrupted by railroads and power lines?" she ponders.
French says the fracking industry does not sell natural gas and oil only to domestic buyers intent on helping the U.S. She believes the companies sell their products to the highest bidders, often foreign buyers.
French and Carolyn Knapp have teamed up to share their personal stories and experiences with fracking. They have co-founded an organization called Pennsylvania Land-owner Group for Awareness and Solutions (PLGAS) to help others avoid the problems and pitfalls that they’ve encountered on their farms.
"When you sign that paper, you’re signing away the subsurface of your property," French says. "You should think long and hard about that before you sign anything."