On Belay (for now)

August 27, 2011

by Jimmy

I’ve lived what I would call a secure life. Growing up, I always had two parents in the house, plenty of food to eat, good friends, a caring extended family. I attended Appalachian State on my parents’ dime, fell into a good construction job right after college (gaining another degree of sorts), travelled for work and play, saved cash for the second round of school, married a fantastic woman, and so on. You get the idea. Sure, there were rough spots. I worked during high school, suffered heartbreak (and broke a few hearts), lost a good friend who wrapped his car around a tree, lost grandparents and other important elders, watched my parents’ divorce after I left home, and worried about my brother’s premature baby boy (who survived and is thriving). Overall, though, I have felt secure living my life. I know that’s not the case for many people, and I try not to take my luck for granted.

These guys are climbing the same route. See how the belayer is anchored to the ledge below?

Instead, most insecurity I experienced came from situations I put myself into in the outdoors, like rock climbing, cycling, and paddling. Over time, I learned to put myself into and climb, ride, or paddle my way out of serious situations. Often, I felt insecure or even scared, like the time at Ship Rock in North Carolina when I climbed a roof that had no place to clip the rope while facing a fifteen-foot fall onto my belayer (the person holding the rope to stop any fall I might take) who was tied to the rock about a hundred feet off the ground. (I have zero recollection of climbing that roof to this day.) Or the time my friend Patrick and I got lost on our mountain bikes on Peavine Mountain outside Reno and raced a lightning storm back to the house. (I swear that storm wanted to eat us.) Or the time my buddy John talked me into kayaking the Pigeon River in NC, and I got thrashed by water too unpredictable and powerful for my experience level. (Yes, I’ve coaxed John into sketchy situations, too. Together, we are idiots.) In all of these cases and others, I put myself in the situation. The stakes were high, but they were mostly physical, though that Pigeon trip rattled me mentally too. But the insecurity and fear I felt were controllable to a large extent and were over once I popped a beer back at the truck. And the main lesson I’ve learned from my outdoor experiences is this: When the physical risk runs high, the best thing to do is to breathe and keep a cool head. A cliché, I know, but it has served me well in all parts of my life, like when my daughter fell and cracked her skull. I fell apart after she was on the Life Flight helicopter.

So, what does this have to do with the Marcellus Shale? Simply this. I have no analogue, no experience, for helping me deal with the insecurity accompanying the development of the Marcellus Shale. It’s not like a climb or a bike ride or a paddle trip that will end with a beer and a re-hashing of heroic deeds and The Cheating of Death. Gas development goes on and on and the stakes are very high. Buying-a-house-and-land-in-the-country high. Keeping-the-family-healthy high. Not a broken ankle or a gashed shin. Huge things.

Two posts ago, Lilace mentioned that buying a house was “stressful.” I read that word and I’m taken back to those “conversations” we had about moving into the country. I consider myself a laid-back guy, but as my bike buds can tell you from chats while riding during this time, I was not laid back at all as Lilace and I conversed about whether we would move out of town. I mean, this is a woman with whom I share values, politics, children, and a bed, though I do question her taste in beer sometimes. But we had a lot of trouble coming to terms on the move and had some version of this “conversation” at least fifteen times:

Lilace: So, I found another house for us to look at.

Me: Where?

Lilace: On top of Pickle Hill.

Me: I still don’t think moving out of town is a good idea.

Lilace: We’ve been through this.

Me: I know, damn it, but if our well water gets screwed up, we’re screwed. Our property won’t be worth anything. We won’t be able to sell. $200,000, poof. Gone. We’ll be stuck. F*** that. [And on and on, ad nauseum.]

Almost always, Lilace calmly watched me blow my top (that’s the PG-13 version, by the way), and left me alone for a while. I was not at my most graceful, usually thinking some breadwinner bullshit like “I make the money, I make the decisions. She hasn’t read shit about this. I have. What the hell is she thinking?” Not pretty. The insecurity drove me to speak to her as angrily as I’ve ever spoken to anyone. I was (and am) not used to dealing with this kind of insecurity, one where forces larger than me can have huge and lasting impacts on my life. That I’ve read about and believed for years the impacts social, cultural, and industrial forces can have on people is an irony not lost on me.

Once I chilled out, we set up a time to look at the house

Now that we’ve moved, I’m happy about it, though uncertainty still bubbles to the surface like frack water. We’ve made our choice, and that means we have to live with it, come what may. I contain my insecurity by learning as much as I can about the process and the politics of gas extraction. As the old saw goes, knowledge is power, and I can use my knowledge to argue for what I think ought to happen. I contain my insecurity by living my version of the country life, hanging with the kids (we had a great hike on our trails Tuesday where the kids battled multi-flora rose with sticks), riding my bikes (I saw a three deer and a grouse yesterday on Shaw Road), and drinking beer on the front porch.

I also contain my insecurity by knowing we have a Plan B. Before we bought our house, I asked my aunt, who owns and rents my grandparents’ old house in NC, if we could move into her house in case our well water ended up trashed or the kids’ health was threatened. Of course, the possibility of losing my job informed my question as well. My aunt said yes. So, we’ve got a bailout option if need be, though it makes me feel a bit disloyal to the place I call home. Commitment means a lot, and I am a strong believer in committing to a place. That’s partly why I’ve never pushed to leave Tioga County where so many great people live. People who may not have a Plan B. My Plan B feels a bit like taking my climbing partner off belay after he’s a hundred feet up a cliff. I’ll be ok, but what about him? Unless he keeps his head, he’ll fall. Not pretty.

This is Only (?) a Test

August 18, 2011

by Lilace

If you read the last post, you can tell that we are declining permission for Shell (or anyone) to do seismic testing on our property.  I’m not interested in arguing about what’s the right decision because what’s right for us is not necessarily what’s right for someone else. We know this. What I want to explore is why and how we came to our decision, especially the culture of mistrust that permeates our interactions with the gas industry. And I don’t think we’re alone in this.

The man who came to our door explained that crews would mark a grid, and make small “shot holes” at specified intervals, which they’d fill with a few pounds of explosives. When the explosives are set off, the shock waves would be monitored so they can map what geologic formations are below, thus getting a pretty good idea of where best to drill. The man mentioned that, since we haven’t leased, the information could show that our property has great worth to Shell—and maybe we could get a better lease—or is not of much worth. We only have seven acres; the seismic grid might not even cross our land much.

Since I claimed my husband was the one who’d sign or not, the Shell representative left me with the form. The language Shell uses—its vagueness and tone—is an example of how gas companies attempt to manipulate or even mislead people. To a person giving it a quick read—while a company man stands by with a pen, for instance—the first sentence implies that the testing will happen no matter what, and they’re just giving you a heads up to be nice: “SWEPI LP . . . is conducting a geophysical seismic survey in search of natural gas reserves and as a courtesy, wishes to obtain consent permission to enter your property . . .”

I agree it is the signer’s responsibility to read carefully and ask questions. But beyond the tone, which presumes an authority I would argue it does not warrant, the next paragraph is the real issue. “The length of time that SWEPI LP will be on your property . . . will be kept to as minimum as possible. The survey is very low impact with no or very minimal damage done to your property.”

A quick search on the internet brings up discussions of what these impacts actually entail. The receiver lines are cleared about 4 ft. wide through woodlands. The perpendicular paths where the shot holes are drilled are wider—some people were told 10 to 12 ft. If you have mostly fields, you might consider this minimal impact. If you have woods, probably not.  And why not say what the average length of time on the property is? I believe the man I spoke with said two weeks.

Since my husband and I are not interested in leasing, the answer was easy for us. If we granted permission we would have strangers on our property at random times over a span of a week or more, explosives going off disturbing us and our animals, be giving away information about our private property, and receiving nothing in return.  No, thank you.

But as I researched further, I discovered something really troubling. In Clark County, Wyoming, a landowner (who did not own the gas rights and therefore could not disallow the seismic testing) found out that about 1% of explosives do not go off and would not deteriorate for 2 years. That’s two years that the explosives could be set off accidentally. His next step was even more interesting: “He phoned his insurance company, advised them of the proposed explosives and seismic exploratory operations and asked about his liability coverage. He was promptly advised that should such activity take place on his property, his homeowner’s insurance would either be cancelled or would not be renewed on the next renewal date.”

How many think about how any of these activities affect their current homeowners insurance policies? Not me. The process seems so straightforward when talking with the man on the porch, but possible consequences twist beneath the surface of the words.

If I had leased, or was thinking of allowing seismic testing, I would now ask what explosives they will use, what percentage misfire, how long till they deteriorate, and exactly what SWEPI LP can be held liable for. I would call my insurance agent and find out how it affects my coverage, and if it violates it I’d ask SWEPI LP what they’d do to make sure I had liability coverage. The sentence “please keep in mind that SWEPI LP would be liable for any damages related to the geophysical seismic survey operations” sounds good, but I’d want to know if there was a time period after the survey was conducted that the liability expired (before the explosives deteriorated, for example) and if it covered personal injury, not just property damage.

Pink surveyor markers used in conjunction with seismic testing

Some of our friends who have leased and been notified that crews will be coming by soon, have not left the house together for weeks. The couple has made sure one of them is home at all times so they can try to negotiate where the paths and explosives go. They have gardens, wetlands, and other property features they cherish. They know the game trails and where the deer bed. They are not reassured by the vague language of Shell’s claims that everything will be all right.

Obviously Shell, or any other gas company, has different priorities than my friends. And landowners can have different priorities, which is why some lease and some don’t. And once a lease is signed—even with well thought out addendums and restrictions on surface disruption—the gas company has the upperhand. Many will work well with property owners, but when their interests directly clash it will almost always be the gas company that gets its way.

Public distrust of fracking (the process and the companies) has grown strong enough that even Washington is aware that more science and more transparency is needed or exploration might be impeded (see the NPR story). Clearly the gas companies have the most money, and money equals power—especially the power to control or heavily influence the flow of information. And people are starting to react against how they’ve wielded that power.

I recognize that 3-D seismic testing yields important information and can help wells be placed more efficiently. But the way gas companies stake out the lines of discussion—at our door and on paper—to cut through obstacles and get what they want makes it hard for me to trust anything they do. So my immediate response is to say no, please leave me alone. No matter how rich they say we’d become, or how harmless and helpful a process is touted to be. And that’s unfortunate for all parties.

I Believe in Signs . . .

August 12, 2011

By Lilace

. . . signs from God, signs of the times, signs of things to come.  I look for them, inwardly and outwardly, but am also cautious about jumping to interpret everything as a sign. Normally, I have no trouble trusting my instincts. But living in Marcellus Shale-land, I feel like my radar has become jammed. I love this place, and the stakes are unbearably high.

Trying to find a house outside Mansfield with a few unleased acres was so difficult (see my first post), I felt confident that if Jimmy and I did, that it’d be a sign to move. That I was pursuing the right direction for our family by looking for a small homestead here on the Allegheny Plateau. Then we found a place just a few miles out of town on top of Pickle Hill. We even knew several neighbors and their kids. The small rancher (white, single story with basement) was not flashy, but the details inside were nice and it had been flawlessly maintained. There was a huge barn, 7 grassy acres, and a view of valley farms off the back porch—the drill pad below was tucked far enough down not to mar our view. Our plan was to downsize in house (we had a ridiculously big old house in town) and upsize in property. We negotiated a price, signed a contract, and were ready to move last summer. All signs said “go.”

Then our buyer lost his buyer, and we couldn’t close by the date in the contract. The sellers couldn’t wait and, probably having realized what a “goldmine” they had (the lawyer’s words when he heard it was unleased and oil-gas-mineral rights were included), quickly found another buyer for a higher price. Wait—was this a sign?

We continued to show our house in town, and in late August got an offer from folks who could close and move right away. We started our search again, now looking outside the school district. I noticed right away that a property near Wellsboro I’d seen months before was significantly reduced, and this time it stated that the land was unleased and came with OGMs. The house was too formal for my taste (I lean toward log cabins), but the size, location, and land matched our needs.

That first visit, I knew it was the one. The grand brick house that seemed intimidating in internet photos, was really warm and homey. And the 7 acres had a mix of lawn, meadow, woods, and many large old trees (as our son had requested). Jimmy came to see it that evening and agreed.

Anyone who’s bought and/or sold a house knows how stressful it is. And moving during the school year when Jimmy was teaching and our son had already started first grade, was not ideal. The beautiful September day that we solidified the offer with our buyers, the University where Jimmy works started notifying professors who were to be retrenched (laid off). Even though Jimmy had achieved tenure and promotion that summer, he was still low in seniority in the English department. No one was safe. We heard from several friends that they’d been notified—some were not surprised, some were stunned. While we breathed a sigh of relief when his job was safe (at least for one more year), it was hard to know if this was a sign to continue on course or abort our plans. We went ahead, not wanting to make knee-jerk decisions out of fear. Really, it didn’t matter what house we were in—if Jimmy lost his job we’d be moving.

Regardless of the anxiety we were feeling, the excitement of the new house, new land, enveloped us. I previously mentioned that Jimmy hadn’t felt the same need to get out of town that I did. Yet he told me that the day he brought over a load by himself and spent a few hours working in the big chair in our bedroom’s bay window he felt the peacefulness of the place move over him. “I don’t think I’ll go into my office on campus as often,” he said. The changes I’d hoped for were already happening.

We moved in on Halloween weekend and raised our son’s Jolly Roger pirate flag because it was the only one we could run up our new flagpole. All through the fall and winter, while I unpacked, organized, and painted, we felt how well this house worked for us. It was less drafty, had office space for Jimmy and me, an art/project space for the kids, and a bigger kitchen so the kids could hang out with me while I cooked, baked, and canned. It was smaller than our old house, and we gave up a downstairs guest room with attached bath. Here we had 1.5 bathrooms instead of two, but the main bathroom was huge, since it’d been a small bedroom once (the house was built before indoor plumbing). Our daughter gave up her room when we had guests, but that wasn’t a big deal since the kids slept in the same room.

I felt smug that we were off the main highways but could get to Route 6 quickly without using dirt roads. Winter driving was easy, our son’s bus ride not very long  (he gets picked up at the end of our driveway), and the drilling activity around us wasn’t visible from our house. The trucks didn’t travel Orebed Road much at all. Leaving the traffic of town behind was bliss.

Even when Jimmy’s mother visited for the first time in spring, the place worked its magic. We were concerned that she wouldn’t be as comfortable here since she’d be upstairs sharing space with all of us. With 2 little kids, mornings are chaotic and loud, and our daughter has appointed herself every guest’s alarm clock. Gramma had enjoyed walking around the corner to the wonderful coffee shop in Mansfield. But I shouldn’t have worried. Gramma hung out on our porch watching the kids play, knitting, and looking across the local cemetery to the hills. She fell in love with the place too.

I got comfortable. I got complacent. I stuck my head in the sand.

Then one July day when I was upstairs reading to my daughter, and my son was outside, the dog started barking and I heard a large pick-up truck come up our driveway. Before I could get outside, a big man in a neon chartreuse t-shirt had left the passenger seat and was shouting a greeting, while trying to figure out which door to head for. Jimmy was at work. I told my daughter to stay inside and walked out to the porch, letting the barking dog come too.

This man was polite, his body language was non-threatening, and his Texas drawl was pleasant. He explained that Shell would soon be doing 3-D seismic testing in our area, and since we had not leased we were being granted the “courtesy” of being informed—and would I please sign the paper giving them permission to “enter” our property.

I shouldn’t have been caught off guard, but I was. And I didn’t want to deal with this right then, so told a lie of rather large proportions: I shrugged helplessly and said, “My husband makes all those kinds of decisions.” (You can stop laughing, Jimmy.) This allowed me to ask questions, to hear the man’s explanation, and to hold onto the form for my husband to sign. I did verify that the property boundaries he had marked on their map were correct, and identified where our well and septic are. In hopes of keeping impromptu visits down, I gave him my husband’s cell phone number (sorry, Babe).

In my next post I’ll go into the details of seismic testing: what it accomplishes, how it affects landowners, and maybe some less obvious details. But the effect this perfectly nice man’s visit had on me is my focus here. The whole day I was anxious and uncharacteristically paranoid. I did not like the idea of men I didn’t know approaching the house. What if I’d been napping or in the shower? What if both kids had been playing outside near the driveway? I realized that as we’d talked, I’d known where my daughter was but not the driver (whom I assumed hadn’t left the truck) or my son (playing on the other side of the house). It all made me twitchy, and I had to acknowledge that I’d started naively hoping we’d be left alone.

I’ve woken from my reverie, and am on high alert. We’ve started this blog and the accompanying facebook page and by diving into the stream of contradicting information, I’m hoping I can bring my radar back online. But even if I can’t read the signs any better than before (like Jimmy says, we’ still learning), I can put up a few of my own.

by Jimmy

So goes the song from the Five Man Electrical Band from 1971. Tesla revived the song in 1990, and it seems to me to be as relevant today as it was in 1971 and 1990. Signs. They’re everywhere. We read them all the time. Signs prompted this blog, itself another “sign.”

Signs serve a practical purpose. They help us get to where we want to go, whether in a car or at the doctor’s office or at the brew pub. When I walk into Yorkholo, the local brewpub, I read the chalkboard: Bungy Blonde, Panama Red, Summer Love, Coal Miner IPA. I place my order and get my beer. (I’m partial to IPAs, though Summer Love is hard to pass up.) The sign announcing the beer selection saves me time, saves the wait staff time, and keeps things moving along. Signs protect (“Deer Crossing,” “Yield,” “Don’t Walk”), and they inform (“Mansfield Growers Market Today 3-6 pm,” “Oswald Cycle Works,” “Mansfield Borough”). Those uses are good, and necessary.

Obviously, the Pipeline Road signs serve a practical purpose as well, namely, telling gas workers where they need to go to access what site. The signs might serve other purposes, like to guide emergency responders. What interests me about the signs is their meaning beyond the practical. For starters, the signs suggest that the industry doesn’t need to learn the names of roads around here (though the workers drive around enough to know them all). Calling Orebed Road “Pipeline Rd. 7” suggests that the industry doesn’t care to learn the lay of the land, even though the industry is changing it as I write this. Such names also make it easier to think about Tioga and the surrounding counties as a resource rather than a place inhabited by people with stories.

Orebed Road (Ore Bed !?) and the county it snakes through have a history, a part of which involves extractive industries. First, there came logging, then tanneries, then coal mining. Some of that history is still with us, in the form of abandoned towns like Landrus and acid mine drainage-polluted rivers like the Tioga. The county’s history also involves many other things besides extracting resources: births, deaths, marriages, feuds, abundance, floods, droughts, farming, hunting, manufacturing, etc. By re-naming the roads using the language of the gas industry, those social and cultural histories are pushed into the background. The signs focus only on the pursuit of gas.

It’s similar to the signal we’d send if we started to call the “Whitney House” we bought last fall the “Guignard House.” Nobody would know what house we were talking about, and when they figured it out, they would probably think we were being presumptuous. Built in 1865, there’s a history in this house that we can’t ignore, and it causes us to think about all the changes we make. It’s our house, but it’s also a house that holds stories from long ago, as do many of the old houses around here. And we are as much caretakers of the stories as we are of the house and the land.

Another meaning that comes from the Pipeline Road signs stems from the authority assumed when one names something. Lilace and I named our kids (we conceived them, literally and metaphorically, after all), an act that gives us authority over them (or so we try to tell them). Humans name all kinds of things. Linnaean classification sets the standard for naming, enabling us to systematically name plants and animals. In turn the act of naming, whether scientific (“homo sapiens”) or proper (“James”) or colloquial (“dude”), asserts authority over the thing being named. Naming helps us to understand what something is and how we relate to it. My kids call me “Daddy,” a name that gives them authority over me (more than I want, sometimes), and it means that I have responsibility for them. My fellow cyclists sometimes call me “Tanker,” because a friend noticed, after a Wednesday night bike ride that I had to skip, the pitchers of beer didn’t disappear as fast. “We need the Tanker,” he delared. “Tanker” fits me, too—I’m slow, and I hold a lot of beer. But those names don’t apply to all fathers or cyclists. Nor are multiple names necessarily a bad thing. My nicknames are acquired through familiarity, and one doesn’t take the place of another. And my friends don’t call me “Tanker” all the time, only when the context applies.

In re-naming the roads, the gas industry is stamping, consciously or not, their authority on the county. Of course, the gas industry is not exactly re-naming the roads, but adding a name to the existing ones. But instead of showing familiarity with local knowledge of this place the way that “Tanker” suggests knowledge of my talent for drinking beer, the Pipeline Road signs imply that those roads are only about extracting the gas. There’s little in the names that indicate familiarity with the place, except for the obvious—natural gas is under here. It’s similar to the way Alaska’s Denali (“the high one”) was renamed Mt. McKinley for a president that never went there, and Nepal’s Jomolungma (“Holy Mother”) became Mt. Everest for British Surveyor Sir George Everest, already dead. It’s like me calling my daughter “Child #2” instead of her name. She becomes known for two qualities, her age and birth order, instead of being known for a name that gives her room to be a complex person.

I don’t think the gas industry re-named the roads with the intent of appearing to ignore the place’s history. They are trying to get a job done, and I’m sure that for many the Pipeline Road signs are a sign (!) of progress. Like Lilace said in her earlier post, the signs are relatively small, the size of campaign signs. One of my cycling buddies said he never noticed them until I mentioned them during one of our bike rides, and now he sees them everywhere. And they are everywhere, like campaign signs during election season, though they represent a different kind of campaign.

You remember the refrain from “Signs,” right? “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign / Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind / Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?” While my mind ain’t broke, the scenery sure is changin’ with the influx of the gas industry. The signs are everywhere.

I’m still learning how to read them.