Friday, March 15, 2013

Timeless tale, universal themes draw press to gas rush Pennsylvania, New York provide examples for the world

Once upon a time…

There was a countryside dotted by farms and inhabited by townsfolk and visitors drawn to its down-home quality of life and serene beauty.

But all was not perfect. The farmers were growing poor and their children were growing up and moving away to seek their fortunes elsewhere. One day, strangers showed up. There are riches under the land, they said – vast stores of energy sought  by explorers regionally and globally. The prospectors were there to make a deal. They had the knowhow to extract this energy – natural gas -- and offered to pay handsomely for access. The results will be energy and jobs for everybody, they promised. Wealth will once again flow from the land, and governments, schools, churches, and civic organizations will all share in it.

Many of the townsfolk were excited. Others were skeptical. They feared they were getting only a part of the story. Surely there must be some risk of turning their land over to an unfamiliar industry to drill through the water table and extract an explosive gas along with other unknowns…? They deliberated, and the more they deliberated, the further they got from an answer.

Irish Landscape
That story is surely familiar to those in New York state living the social divisions and political uncertainty over shale gas production -- except for the lilt in the accents of the townsfolk. Did I mention that this story is taking place in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland? It’s a place of rolling hills, lush pastures, pristine lakes and burbling streams. It’s also where Tamboran Resources, a Canadian petroleum exploration company, has announced the discovery of a shale gas reserve with enough natural gas to supply Northern Ireland for more than 50 years and also export to other countries.

This is Chapter 1 of the story unfolding in Ireland, and it ends with another story. Drawn by both the timeliness and timelessness of the issues at hand, a crew from BBC of Northern Ireland flew to JFK Airport this week. From there they drove four hours to northern Appalachia and southern New York state to see firsthand how the shale gas saga has played out five years after it began with a story line similar to reports from County Fermanagh. (With some important distinctions: The state, not landowners, owns rights to oil and gas in the United Kingdom, and although landowners get paid incentives for development, they stand less direct financial gain than their counterparts in the United States.)

The BBC crew found that the outcome to the story over the Marcellus Shale in New York and Pennsylvania varies, sometimes widely, depending on locality and culture. Policy makers in New York, pressed by townsfolk facing the same dilemma as those in Fermanagh and later from a national grass roots anti-fracking campaign, put a hold on shale gas extraction five years ago with no immediate resolution to the conflict in sight. Policy makers in Pennsylvania, a state with a legacy of extraction in both the petroleum and coal industry and a much higher tolerance for enduring related environmental and public health consequences, have encouraged the industry while figuring out how to deal with impacts as they develop, with mixed results.

The BBC report, hosted by Ciaran Tracey, will be aired Tuesday on Spotlight, a BBC TV Current Affairs program. I had the pleasure of meeting the crew from Ireland filming in New York and Pennsylvania. It was lead by producer Maurice May, and he asked me why I thought Dimock had become so well-known globally.

My answer: The story resonates. There is a timeless mystique to the tale of a stranger visiting your home and proffering a deal involving an unknown windfall that will change your life. The various Dimock narratives (told in Under the Surface and End of Country) personify the classic promise of rags to riches and the theme of disillusionment that often accompanies the notion that money will set things right. The civic context in which this story unfolds is also timeless. The security and comfort of small-town life is challenged, changed, buoyed or swamped by global forces and technology. In this case the global force is energy demand and the technology fracking. (These themes are also central to the fictional movie "Promised Land.")

There are other compelling factors at work in Dimock: When the fledgling onshore drilling boom was hot, the story fell under the scrutiny of news teams from New York turning to the unfolding land play in Pennsylvania, and it had no shortage of “good stuff’” on which to build reports: everyday people – seeking no notoriety or office – compelled into activism against multi-national corporations; fights over land and water; and perhaps most compelling, an industry that flatly denied problems while refusing to disclose information, thereby inviting media investigation and public scrutiny. Dimock in particular and the gas story in general has all the things that motivate journalists, plus one more – snowballing grass roots movements influencing outcomes in two states and inspiring the notion that government is motivated and directed by the people, no matter how polarizing the issues.

The moral of the story unfolding in Dimock, County Fermanagh, and countless small towns sitting over large mineral reserves across the word will vary depending on who tells it.

The industry:  Free-enterprise plus hard work = wealth and freedom

The activist: Pirates come dressed as landmen. 

My own: Don’t look for happily ever after outside of fairy-tales. But there is plenty of inspiration to be found by small town people aspiring to make a big difference. 


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  2. Have the folks in Dimock, and across Pennsylvania managed to change things for themselves, or just for other states?

    1. Residents of Dimock have influenced the course and pace of shale gas development within a nine-square mile area where problems are the worst. The DEP is allowing no new gas wells in this area. Fracking here has also been banned for years, but it is now resuming. The pro-fracking grass roots movement has also influenced the outcome by aggressively protesting an $11 million pipeline proposal to transmit water from Montrose to affected homes in Dimock. (This was defeated after Corbett was elected governor in Nov. 2009.) Some residents with claims against Cabot Oil & Gas have accepted a settlement for damages. Others fight on. Lastly the Center for Disease Control is evaluating possible impact of concentrations of arsenic and other pollution while several contaminated water supplies remain off line.

      More broadly, there have been a host of various policy changes and proposals in Pa. since the rush began. Some are in the controversial Act. 13. This deals with impact fees to affected areas, and the right for local municipalities to ban shale gas. This is now being fought in the courts.

      So I would say yes, they Pa. residents are influencing events in their own state. But the battle continues…

    2. Although I am unable to speak to past events, I remain active in an attempt to reduce some of the current, future problems-mainly air quality for those of us living in the gasfields or patch as the industry calls it. I am not optimistic but doing nothing is really not an option. Also,I would say we have helped others far more than we helped ourselves.Here we remain the trouble making liars-or worse environmentalists! There is a sense of peace, on a good day,when I think we made a difference. Most importantly, my daughter considers me her hero and that is worth more than the most lucrative gas lease.

  3. Well written and interesting. I'm trying to figure out if my great grandmother's parents were from Armaugh County or Omagh, County Tyrone. Either way, she was born in Iowa in 1878 so the Irish blood is a bit dilute. It was all just Ireland back then. County Tyrone is next to County Fermanagh to the east in Northern Ireland.