Thursday 20 June 2019

A community divided – how a small American town fared in the age of fracking

In 2006, the gas giants' 'land men' arrived in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, often at dusk, offering locals cash to lease their land. Orlaith Farrell finds out what happened next

A drill on a farm in Wellsboro. Photo: Tim McBride
A drill on a farm in Wellsboro. Photo: Tim McBride
Homeowner John Anthony Trallow, member of Shale Justice. Photo: Tim McBride
Farmer Don Johnson (77) had a fracking waste water leak on his land in Wellsboro. Photo: Tim McBride
Al Garrison, owner of local store Garrisons Menswear, in Wellsboro. Photo: Tim McBride
A drill on a farm in Wellsboro Penn.

Orlaith Farrell

NESTLED between the mountains and rivers of Northern Pennsylvania lies Wellsboro, a picturesque town about the same size as Bantry in Cork.

For the past century, it relied on farming, small business and tourism. But life changed for its 3,500 residents in 2006 when exploration of a giant rock formation beneath their feet, loaded with natural gas, began.

Wellsboro is one of many towns in the states of Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Maryland, West Virginia and New Jersey which are part of the largest gas field in the US, known as the Marcellus Basin.

Over the past five years, construction workers, engineers and contractors have poured into Wellsboro, with the town becoming one of many at the centre of an international debate about hydraulic fracturing, or 'fracking', the controversial method used to harvest the gas.

Seen by the Obama administration as a way to exploit domestic energy deposits while fuelling economic growth, fracking isn't just good news for people living on the Marcellus Shale.

Research from an independent strategy group suggests the energy boom supports more than two million jobs and has lifted the average American's income by more than $1,200 (€875).

It's estimated that it takes 420 people across 150 different jobs to bring a single well online. Tioga County, where Wellsboro is located, is now home to just under 800.

Drilling was first explored in 2006 when representatives of the gas industry known as 'land men' trickled in to the area, offering farmers and landowners money to lease their property for pipes, drilling pads and wells.

Residents say the men arrived quietly and approached people individually. "I am not going to say they came in the dead of night, but it was certainly dusk," local county commissioner Erick Coolidge explains.

A politician and dairy farmer, and also co-chair on the Pennsylvania County Gas and Oil Commission, Mr Coolidge said his focus was to address the concerns of residents and get the best possible deal for the town.

"This county alone has received two payments of about $9m (€6.5m) in two years," he says, adding that this "impact fee" should be included in any deals struck to allow fracking in Ireland.

But how much your neighbours got is a constant topic of conversation, with many still stinging from signing up for small sums.

Some of the earliest deals saw land owners receive $5 (€3.63) an acre.

Others who waited would later negotiate contracts worth up to $3,500 (€2,550).

"This is about the haves and have nots," Al Garrison, who owns the local menswear store, says. "Families, hunting clubs that used to get together to hunt and play cards started to argue about who was going to get what. It changed the complexity of the family farm because it all became about money."

Drilling began in earnest in 2009 and a steady stream of trucks and workers poured in. With more people, customers and traffic, business took off.

Al Garrison reopened the county's only dry cleaners in 2010 and discovered that his biggest customers were gas workers.

"The Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana men have a peculiar habit of having their jeans and shirts very heavily starched," he says.

"They paid me $5.50 (€4) a pair of jeans and $2.25 (€1.60) to do their shirts the same way. These guys had become our customers and that was unexpected."

It wasn't just the dry cleaning business that was busy; Garrison's menswear enjoyed increased sales, stocking flame retardant clothing to meet the market, but the booming business isn't without its headaches.

"It's unbelievable the road traffic that comes with it," he says. "It's detrimental to quality of life but I'm sure business is better that it's ever been."

The Penn Wells Hotel on Main Street has been looking after visitors since 1869. Chief executive Shawn Bryant said the new market allowed it to remain open in the winter, avoiding seasonal layoffs, and meant funds were available for renovations. Down the road, diner owner Harland Crawford had to take on new staff to deal with demand.

"It's tough in North Pennsylvania. Any business person up here would tell you the same thing. For us and this community it was a godsend. Some of our farmers were desperate. It has given them a real boost – I see them with new barns, new cars."

But he recognises that it's a divisive issue. "Some of the people who were negative about the gas didn't see any of the benefits. They just saw the holes going in to the ground."

A 2010 study from Penn State University study predicts that the gas boom will create 176,000 jobs in Pennsylvania by 2020 and generate €10bn in state revenue and taxes.

One company, Keane Frac, opened new offices in the town in September 2012. A stack of leaflets sit at reception, advertising excellent pay, benefits and steady work for material handlers, pump operators, blender operations and mechanics.

"We're always hiring," HR Director Matthew Feil says. "Specialist positions aren't always possible to fill locally but for positions in finance, IT and HR, we do find local candidates."

Cameron Clemins (22) is in college and says many of his peers were able to stay in the area as a result of the gas boom.

"I could probably name 10 guys, maybe more, that got jobs in gas. They're all working locally. It brings in so much money, it's hard not to be positive about it."

US gas prices have dropped due to mass production in places like Tioga County. As a result, drilling in the area has slowed and many of the wells are temporarily 'shut in' until higher prices drive demand.

Dairy farmer Don Johnson wasn't overly concerned when he leased his farm in 2010, but things have since changed.

"A commodity should be harvested, same as timber or anything. That's how I felt about it at first.

"Now I don't feel that way. I'm not saying it shouldn't be harvested but they should do it in a nice way."

In 2010, a suspected leak from a wastewater tank on the farm caused his cattle to be quarantined.

The 77-year-old says the leak was dealt with immediately but calves died for the following two years, probably from drinking the contaminated water.

"My wife has had several heart attacks and so have I. It's probably from worrying over what they're doing to our farm," he says. In neighbouring Sullivan County, musician John Anthony Trallow was so enraged by fracking that he joined 'Shale Justice'.

A coalition of environment groups, they are in regular contact with Irish anti-fracking groups.

The grandfather says everything changed when the land men came knocking. He refused the $1,800 (€1,300) he was offered for his land, which is less than an acre, and he remains angry that so many have signed deals.

"Here in Pennsylvania we're the poster child of stupid. They will turn rural Pennsylvania into a gas field if we let them."

But commissioner Erick Collidge thinks differently, and has this advice for Irish communities:

"If we base what we're doing on science, and not on hysteria and rhetoric, I think the confidence can be gained. The error in all of this has been not to include the environmental interests from the beginning.

"If we had done anything different it would have been to say let all of us get together, let's start at the beginning with everybody."

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editors Choice

Also in World News