|Vera Scroggins in front of a drilling rig in Dimock Township|
PHOTO JAMES PITARRESI
The Cabot v. Scroggins trespassing case might have been relegated to a journalistic footnote in a national conflict over shale gas development and high volume hydraulic fracturing. It has long been standing practice (and common sense) for companies to restrict access to operations where crews are using heavy equipment and hazardous chemicals under high pressure to drill wells and fracture bedrock a mile deep in the ground.
Scroggins admittedly crossed into designated work areas on occasion, but there were no signs denoting trespass zones, she said, and her ventures into drilling territory in each case were in good faith to openly ask questions and seek information. (Some background on this in a moment.) The remarkable and possibly groundbreaking aspect of this case, however, is not the charge or the defense, but the resulting preliminary injunction the Susquehanna Court of Common Pleas issued on October 21, 2013. Pending trial of the case this spring, the order forbids Scroggins from setting foot on land owned or leased by Cabot, “including but not limited to” well sites, well pads, and access roads. That language, interpreted by Scroggins lawyer Gerald Kinchy, in effect forbids Scroggins from going to certain school grounds, her auto mechanic of 23 years, many other businesses, the county jail, and homes of dozens of friends, among other places. Doing so puts her at risk of contempt of court. (See the full order, embedded below.)
Cabot’s action raises the broader issue of how much control energy companies have over land they lease. While mineral extraction is their stated intention, many standard leases give companies ill-defined and seemingly limitless discretion over land use. “When drilling companies lease rights to land for mineral extraction,” Kinchy said, “does that mean they have rights to exclude other people from that land, even property owners?”
Apart from the Scroggins case, that question has mostly applied to practical matters of daily extraction operations. A company such as Cabot might own rights to a large tract, but it is generally concerned about gaining or restricting access to active work areas. Conflicts might crop up over where exactly a company might build a pad, access road, or pipeline, and at what inconvenience or loss of land use to the landowner. When that happens, lease language and the respective parties’ appetite and resources for litigation come into play, with the company often in a position of leverage.
The Scroggins case breaks new ground. Issues of practicality (and enforcement) aside, it probes whether a company can legally keep a person from stepping foot on leased land outside of established work zones, including public spaces where others are allowed.
Now for some background. Cabot Oil & Gas operations have drawn numerous violations from the state and much national and international media coverage due to recurring water pollution problems in Dimock Township. The company has been a particular target for critics and activists, including Scroggins, who lives in the neighboring township of Brooklyn. (More about that here.)
In Under the Surface, I describe Scroggins this way:
… a grandmother, amateur videographer, and advocate for many causes, including home births, home schooling, and no mandated childhood vaccinations. In 2009, she took up the cause as a watchdog against oil and gas operators who began leasing large tracts of northeast Pennsylvania to develop the Marcellus Shale. “We’re extra eyes and ears for the DEP,” she told [a community organizer]. “They don’t have enough workers and we have to pick up the slack.”
Footage from some of Vera’s vigilante patrols in 2009 shows encounters with roughnecks and pipeline workers, some reacting with amusement or annoyance to the woman with a home video camera showing up at these remote and often inaccessible work sites and peppering them with questions. Some called her “ma’am” and briefly addressed her questions; some directed her to the foreman, who almost always asked her to leave; and some simply ignored her or walked away. These brief encounters typically punctuate long unedited footage of vacuum trucks, excavation equipment, and hay bales. Vera also taped public forums and interviews with residents … recounting their experiences with gas development. These videos she posted online, where they joined a broad and growing collection of depictions of Susquehanna County gas development by other independent media, advocates … and professional news outlets. They generally … presented aspects of drilling that lent themselves to visuals: truck traffic, derricks, flaring, fracking, and heavy machinery cutting swaths through the countryside.
Until the injunction, Vera had intensified her efforts, serving as a tour guide for parties interested in seeing and learning about drilling and fracking from a perspective other than that offered by company tours and commercials. On occasion, she has helped me locate operations in the region (viewable from public roads.)
Cabot poses a sound argument that those venturing onto work sites without permission pose an annoyance, distraction, and/or safety threat. But Vera’s presence has become iconic of another kind of threat to the company – bad public relations and control over its image. The scope of the injunction against Scroggins invites wonder whether Cabot attorneys who crafted the language were unintentionally imprecise, or whether they are testing a strategy to eliminate their Scroggins PR headache once and for all, while sending a message to other activists.
George Stark, a company spokesman, was unavailable to answer this and other questions.