This is Only (?) a Test
August 18, 2011
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.
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.