Fracking for dollars: Articles about big paydays for mineral rights overlook environmental nightmares down the road


Sometimes the most important part of a story is what it doesn’t say. I was thinking that this week when I sat down to read another major story in the New York Times about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for natural gas. It was headlined, “New Value for Land In Rural Ohio,” and the story struck me as more than a little naive about “the energy boom” that was coming to these small towns dotting the American heartland, about the sudden fortunes falling upon working class folks who’ve struggled their whole lives until the day the magical day that a man from the gas company rang their door. I almost felt like I was reading an ad for the Publishers’ Clearinghouse sweepstakes, or maybe the lottery, as the Times interviewed the lucky winners who sold off their mineral rights:

Arthur and Sharon Stottsberry, who are retired from inspector and clerk jobs with the State Department of Transportation, received $280,000 for the right to lease oil and gas reserves beneath their 70-acre farm. “It doesn’t seem real,” said Mrs. Stottsberry, 68. “We haven’t planned much about what to do. The most important thing is I want to make sure my grandkids do well.”

Tom and Cheryl Tonnous, who own almost 60 acres, deposited their $238,413.20 check for oil and gas rights at the credit union a day after it arrived. Mr. Tonnous, 58, spent most of his working life at a car parts manufacturer here that closed almost two years ago. Mrs. Tonnous, 59, is a part-time postal worker.

Mr. Tonnous said he is considering buying a new farm tractor to replace one that dates to 1951. Mrs. Tonnous mentioned a shopping trip to Kohl’s. Both said they wanted to take care of their family. “It’s so foreign to us, having money like this,” Mrs. Tonnous said. “We just didn’t believe it was happening until the check actually arrived.”

I sure hope I’m wrong, but I can’t help put thinking these happy people are going to be getting the bill down the road, and that some of them are going to question whether the money was worth it. I’m cynical because I’ve seen this happen so many times before. The good people of rural Ohio need to talk with their counterparts across the border in Pennsylvania, where landmen were knocking on doors and writing checks five, six, seven years ago. Today, many of these tiny towns have been ripped apart, with feuds pitting neighbor against neighbor. There are families with giant water buffaloes outside their homes, because their well water is too malodorous or even too toxic to drink, or too murky to bathe in. They worry about the fumes, or watching family members or even their beloved dog get sick and they wonder if fracking is to blame. Today, there are many rural towns in the Marcellus Shale region who aren’t celebrating the arrival of the “energy boom” — they want their old way of life back.

The real tragedy is that Big Oil and Big Gas is in such a manic race to drill, baby, drill that there’s a good chance that the scourge of fracking is coming to a town near you, no matter where you live. Every day, my email box fills up with reports from all over the nation — from North Carolina, from Alabama, from Colorado and all the way out to the great Pacific Ocean. They are all variations on the same story: Residents — many of them reeling from what’s happened to the economy — learning that they may be part of the next “energy boom” while overwhelmed local officials and regulators deal with an onslaught of drilling rigs.

Heck, the other day I read about the hazards of fracking near the sunny shores of Southern California:

See, for example, the turmoil in Los Angeles County, where a company called PXP is hoping to expand its fracking operations at the Inglewood oil field. The site isn’t anything like the rustic woodlands of Pennsylvania. Located in an incorporated area between Culver City, Baldwin Hills and View Park, the 1,100-acre spread is the largest urban oil field in the US. More than one million people live within five miles of the hundreds of wells there. The field’s productivity had been on a steady decline until PXP started using fracking methods around 2003 to get at the estimated 50 percent of petroleum reserves that are inaccessible through more conventional drilling methods.

What could possibly go wrong? Three years into the project, a toxic cloud was released from the site and a number of nearby residents had to be evacuated. And this is Southern California, remember, so residents are very, very concerned about the impact that fracking might have on earthquakes in its fragile seismic zone. Can you blame them?

So much of this is driven by greed. This week there was a report about Aubrey McClendon, the CEO of Chesapeake Energy, the firm that bills itself as “the world’s largest fracker.” It seems that both McClendon and his company are in a world of financial trouble — billions of dollars in debt, under investigation by securities regulators for alleged massive conflicts of interest, and reeling from the collapsing price of natural gas, which is the direct result of over-fracking. So you can guess what McClendon’s plan is for getting out of his problems. That’s right — drill, baby, drill. Chesapeake plans to frack even more, in research of liquids like ethane that are fetching higher prices, in the rural areas of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. That’s probably alarming news to folks in Avella, Pa., where just last year a liquid-fuel holding pond and storage tanks exploded, setting a hillside on fire and injuring three workers.

The biggest tragedy is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Thousands of holes have been drilled deep into the earth before we had the science on how to best frack and how to deal with related issues such as wastewater disposal in a safe fashion, or whether fracking can be done safely at all. Just this week, the International Energy Agency came out with a major report finding that fracking can be done with much less harm to the environment — with stricter regulations and the latest technology. They said that implementing some of these safety measures would add just 7 percent to the cost of gas production — at a time when prices for natural gas have dropped to the lowest levels in years.

That seems like a small price to pay for a better environment. But that also means that people and their elected representatives need to wake up. From small towns in Ohio to the inner-city of greater Los Angeles, we can’t simply mortgage our future for a one-time payday.

To read the New York Times article about mineral rights in rural Ohio:

For more information on fracking in Southern California and elsewhere, read:

For the story on billionaire Aubrey McClendon and his plan to increase fracking:

To learn about the International Energy Agency report on improving fracking safety, go to:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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