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.


11 Responses to “This is Only (?) a Test”

  1. Go you! A thoughtful, intelligent reading of a contract, a sensitive questioning of implications…what a hemorrhoid you must to the gas companies who are so used to blinding people with $$$$!!! Fabulous. Wish more people were like you!

  2. Anya said

    We’ve said no to seismic testing as well…we only have 4 acres and live in a development of about 30 houses all on lots less than 3 acres. Can’t believe they’re planning on doing it here!

  3. Karen said

    I really like your blog. Having had some experience with the petrochemical industry’s failure to monitor a safe working environment, I am glad to see that you are not going to take the money and run. In Houston, we’d just have periodic explosions when one of the plants had an accident (we lived about 15 miles from the Houston Ship Channel, where the majority of industries were located), and we could tell by the “boom” that another accident had occurred. What is to prevent that from happening while your children are playing outside?

    Thanks for blogging about this.

  4. It’s just another lesson that things aren’t as simple as they seem. I don’t know that we with our measly seven acres are a thorn in anyone’s side, and that’s not my goal. But I worry about the unseen consequences for all of us, whether we’ve leased or not.

  5. sheila h said

    (oops I posted this under an earlier article..whups!)
    This is a great idea and I am in awe of your writing talent and website abilities..
    We ,too,were approached by Shell for the purpose of determining the gas reserves beneath our property here in the Westfield area of Tioga County. The men employed by Shell in this endeavor were very polite but persistent returning a few times to ask to perform the tests. Glad that we refused because my husband has a work contact in Westmorland County whose neighbor’s underground aquifer ,the water supply to their home,collapsed from the dynamite explosions. The Gas company involved (it may have been Range Resources ) disputed that the charges were the cause .
    I wish I could say there was a happy ending but at this time the homeowner must pay for another well to be drilled and is considering legal options….good luck there as it seems the Gas/oil companies are untouchable in this regard..and there exists a whole lot of other areas they should be culpable..
    i grieve for those homeowners in the Mansfield area who lost their water and more recently those folks in the Wellsboro area at the Putnam Trailer Courtyard ,too ,that also lost their water potable water supplies. At last word the gas company involved was not even considering supplying one of those eye catching black water buffaloes to those people…why? perhaps because they are in a lower socio-economic class? maybe they don’t vote..
    Thanks to the ” Halliburtan Loophole” in the legislation of the revamped clean water act under Bush/Cheney the gas/oil industries pretty much get a free ride as to culpability and the onus is on the little guy to prove the damage,the loss,the methane contamination of private water supplies. Thus one must cough up $500-$1000 to have water tested prior to any problem.
    Our Governor Corporate is a one trick pony shilling for the Halliburtan Circus. It should be law that if a homeowner witnesses the over night decline of the wealth of their home from loss of potable water supply the gas/oil company should purchase said home at the fair market value prior to the insult.
    Pennsylvania truly is under siege. Her lands,watersheds and people will continue to bear the brunt of this golden “gas ‘rush for the next 20 years . In that time over 100 drilling companies from all over the globe are projecting upwards of 100,000 to 400,00 wells to be drilled.
    We will not have state parks or forests. This Governor will promote drilling on public university/ college,high school,grade school any other state maintained holdings to balance those books rather than charge the trillionaires that own these gas/oil companies a proper user fee. (The use fee proposed by Scarnatti and under adoption by the state senate is a is a giveaway)
    The People of Pa ,too,will be stuck with the bill to clean up the hazardous ,poisoned areas long after the gas grab and private mega -profits realized. Sure there are jobs but not those projected in that false report compiled by Penn State (paid for by Big Oil). We will see the loss of the wildlife as their habitat fractured or destroyed,water ways polluted ,traffic continue to increase exponentially ,more transients some with questionable life values moving into our area . Forget about the tourism business that brought upwards of 900 million dollars into the PA Commonwealth coffers.
    . The gas companies with the assist of our state legislatures have and are moving fast.
    It is up to the Pa People to slow things down so that a modicum of common sense and best practices come into play. We must write our congressional reps,State and Fed ,and the Guv’nor often and let them know we are not happy with their one-sided
    support towards this mega the soap box..
    I sure hope I did not wear out my welcome ..
    Sheila ..the KettleKorn lady

  6. Emily Rizzo said

    We wouldn’t allow testing either. I’ve spoken with several people who did have testing done because they have leased their land. One farmer said that they took down her electric fence and her cattle got out. Another farmer said that Shell was supposed to remove the magnets which pop out of the ground but they didn’t and now their cows have been eating them (which is my cows have magnets in their stomach). And as for one’s land being worth much more to Shell, they aren’t paying anyone more than $2,000 an acre tops.

  7. kate4joy said

    Well said…and well thought out before you said it. Your blog is a great addition to the conversation about gas drilling/rights/conservation. I hope many people read it.

  8. Very nice. I look forward to chatting with you more since Rolf, my husband, will now be enrolled at MU. We both are opposed to what is happening with the gas projects. I grew up in Lawrenceville, PA and after being away for 7 years I am shocked with the destruction that has occurred. What is most appaling to me is that companies like Shell are preying on desperate people who have not seen more than $10,000/year. To come in and offer them large sums of money and make false promises is sad. Furthermore, the education is lacking in this area, not only are most people just high school grads (or less), but the companies are not educating the public on potential disasters. It is an interesting blend at my house now, we have moved back in with my parents, who have signed a lease agreement on their 110 acres, and my dad works for the companies. Not to mention many of my friends who also work for the companies. It hurts my heart to know what destruction could come and people are blinded by the money. Fortunately, for me we are only going to be in the area for 2-3 years so if the water tables do become contaminated we are free to move, but for all of my friends and family who have made their lives here they are trapped and it kills me. Well there is my two cents worth. I can go on forever about this topic, but we can leave that for a coffee date 🙂

    • I look forward to meeting you too, Jennifer. I am sure this area looks very different than what you remember, but it is still beautiful in so many ways. I’ve lived in lots of different places and they all change somehow–tourists move in and “take over” a town, universities expand and take over residential areas, and industry, of course. I totally see where you’re coming from, but I also think there are more educated people who support what’s going on (or at least some type of exploration of nat. gas) than you might think. Each for different reasons, maybe because of different world views. I think the most important thing is we keep talking to each other as well as to our local, state, and federal representatives. There is so much information–conflicting/contradicting information–that one person cannot have it all figured out. We can only stand for our place together. And while Jimmy and I could leave (and will if our family’s health is threatened), I feel strongly about struggling with the community and land here to figure our ways through this. We have fallen in love with this place and way of life. But we are now in the time of our lives when we’re settling, having spent years moving for school, jobs, etc. So I get what you’re saying too.

  9. C Hein Walters said

    I have read that parts of beautiful, clean, unpopulated Wyoming now have air as dirty as Houston, TX. I believe Houston had the most polluted air in the US in 2010. Wyoming is in the middle of an energy boom also, (coal) with a fair amount of strip mining.
    Texas Teachers groan on “ozone action days” because the code red means no outdoor recess for students-the air quality outdoors is too unhealthy for the young, elderly or those with compromised health conditions. If Texas Gov. Good Hair (Rick Perry) gets elected, I predict we will all be living underground. Invest now in life-sized,hermetically sealed bubbles~

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