Gas drilling’s promise, perils rile townsfolk
Ron Hilliard came back from church one Sunday to find hundreds of plastic $5, $10, $20 and $100 bills hanging on his fence in Flower Mound, Texas, another message from townsfolk angry at him for signing a lucrative natural gas drilling lease for his suburban Dallas property.
In Damascus, Pa., about 1,500 miles away, drilling advocate Marian Schweighofer awoke one morning to the word “LORAX” _ from the Dr. Seuss book about environmental destruction _ spray-painted on the road near her family’s 712-acre farm.
This technique _ used with horizontal drilling _ allows rich stores of gas to be extracted from once out-of-reach, dense shale formations more than a mile underground. Intense drilling activity is under way in the Barnett Shale of Texas, the Marcellus Shale of Pennsylvania, and other producing shale regions around the country. As tens of thousands of Americans become energy magnates in their own backyards, tens of thousands more worry about environmental dangers. The industry insists the process is safe, for people and the environment.
This energy boom has turned neighbor against neighbor, split towns and families in bitter disputes, and touched off sharp debates over the sudden emergence of gas companies and their 14-story drilling rigs, some rising in the middle of towns and neighborhoods.
One side touts the jobs and prosperity drilling brings, allowing businesses to flourish and down-on-their-luck farmers to hang on to their land. Gas leases have made millionaires of some property owners. Regions long struggling economically are suddenly flush.
On the other side are those who either won’t gain anything or fervently believe the wealth isn’t worth the risk. Alarmed by toxic spills, scattered drill site explosions and tainted drinking water, they fear a reduced quality of life and declining property values.
“Those who own their mineral rights are happier than a pig in mud,” said Flower Mound resident Chris Tomlinson, who is making thousands of dollars a month from the gas wells drilled on his land. “Those who don’t, want it to go away.”
Fracking opponents complain the industry has taken environmental and safety shortcuts in their zeal to reap the vast stores of gas once locked tight within the shale.
The acrimony is not likely to subside anytime soon. Even with some 26,000 wells drilled in 16 states through the end of 2009 _ more than half of those in Texas _ the shale gas revolution is still relatively young .
Most of the wells have been drilled in the past decade, particularly in Pennsylvania’s white-hot Marcellus Shale region and in the Barnett Shale of Texas, where the new extraction techniques were perfected and the boom began in earnest in 2006. Hundreds of thousands more wells could be drilled in coming decades, according to drilling companies and energy officials.
In Texas, a state so inextricably linked to drilling that an oil derrick adorns the license plate, the feuding in Flower Mound has been extraordinary.
A rural community about 30 miles northwest of Dallas, it had just over 15,000 residents in 1990 but exploded into an affluent and politically influential suburb of 70,000 by 2009. Relative newcomers drawn by its quality of life filled large brick homes in manicured subdivisions and send their children to highly ranked schools. By and large, they don’t own their mineral rights _ and many were outraged when gas wells began popping up near their neighborhoods, sometimes just a few hundred feet from schools and day care centers. Today, more than 40 wells are extracting gas in town.
On the other side are the longtime residents, farmers and ranchers who own their mineral rights and stand to make a lot of money on leases and royalties.
“It was pretty much neighbor against neighbor. People just turned on people … and it’s left some pretty nasty divides here in town,” said Tomlinson.