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.

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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.