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Sounds of the Prairie: Cows and gas flares

It’s getting into autumn in New England, and I’ve been spending a lot of time lately revisiting my walk last May through the Bakken oil field in the prairie of North Dakota. I kept a lot of notes, but also took photos and audio of things encountered along the way. I’ve been writing these past days about a Saturday morning spent with several local families who had gathered to brand more than 300 calves. Listen in as the cowboys separated cows from calves early that morning.

 

The oil field has settled over this land of ranching and farming, bringing new sounds. There is relatively little pipeline infrastructure in McKenzie County, so natural gas that comes up with oil from the wells is flared off. Hundreds such flares light the night sky and burn in the bright of day.

 

I also had a chance this summer to sit down and talk about the North Dakota walk with Virginia Prescott, host of NHPR’s Word of Mouth program. You can listen to that conversation over at Word of Mouth.

Water, water everywhere

On my third day of walking west to east across Susquehanna County toward the town of Dimock, known for early gas drilling and a case of 18 water wells contaminated by it, in 2009, I followed a gravel road downhill into a hollow. There, on the left, a wide creek flowed through the forest.

The presence of that particular creek is notable to make a broader point: This wooded terrain at the northern edge of Pennsylvania is among the wettest I have ever seen. (One more wet, perhaps: The Amazon, upstream of Manaus.) In the Endless Mountains of Susquehanna County, water defines the landscape. Springs lead to marshes to creeks to rivers. Nearly every cleared farm seems to have, somewhere in a field, a pond, once for cattle to drink, now for sitting next to on a summer evening.

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A recently built tank holds 15 million gallons of fresh water that will be used to frack gas wells near Little Meadows, Pennsylvania

People have been noticing for a long time the defining impact that water has in this landscape. As one example, some excerpts from “History of Susquehanna County,” written by Emily Blackman and published in 1873:

• ‘Little Meadows, a locality so named to distinguish it from the marsh mentioned above [Big Meadows], is two and a half miles lower on the Apolacon Creek, across which, at this point, the beavers once built a dam…’

• Apolacon Township: ‘It took its name from the creek which is the principal drain of the township. Bear Swamp, not far from the head of the creek, is one of several marshes, almost amounting to lakes, within the boundaries of Apolacon.’

A pond near Meshoppen Creek
• ‘With the exception of the outlet of Elk Lake and near tributaries, (Dimock) township is wholly drained by the Meshoppen, or Mawshapi, in Indian language, signifying cord or reed stream.’

• A cabin built in Dimock in 1802 ‘stood in a beautiful valley, nearly surrounded by hills, beside a brook of pure water which ran through, and gave name to the valley…’

Which road to take?

I begin the trip Saturday morning back to Dryden, New York, where my truck has been parked on a farm for the past nine days.

I hope to hitch a ride from Montrose, PA to Vestal, NY. There some folks I met while passing through Owego will pick me up and shuttle me further. If I can get to Candor, I’ve been promised a ride the last leg up to Dryden.

As a traveler, such kindness of strangers and new friends is essential when trying to walk 70 miles to understand a place as dynamic as the Marcellus gas fields.

As a reporter, too, I count on so many people to share their stories. I was aware when setting out that I wanted to here many views of gas development. There is no debate that drilling and the industrialization that follows has massive impacts on the natural terrain and the communities that live there. But it is striking how differently people see the costs of those impacts.

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Now that I have completed this second walk across a landscape being redefined by the fuel beneath the surface, I realize what a broad range of views I encountered, nuances deepening the two main sides of the debate: to drill or not to drill?

During the eight days of my walk, I was hosted by local residents, either camping on their land or sleeping in their homes. The breakdown of my hosts’ views:

Day One: Anti gas development
Day Two: Pro gas development
Three: Anti
Four: Pro
Five: Anti
Six: Pro
Seven: Anti
Eight: Pro

There is much more than for or against, of course, and I will be exploring that in deeper stories in the months ahead.

‘Isn’t that special”

Do you know what 0.14 divided by 523.77 times 0.17 equals?

I’ll get to the answer in a second.

First, I want to tell you a bit more about the man who lives along the babbling brook who offered me a place to pitch my tent the other night.

His wife and grown daughter joined us for a BBQ on the side porch, and we talked about gas development among the rural communities of the region above the Marcellus shale. My hosts are all for it. In fact, most people I’ve talked to are, and even opponents of fracking in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania readily confirm they are in a lonely minority. Why all the support for drilling in the Endless Mountains?

People talk about energy independence and gas as a ‘bridge fuel,’ but it all comes back to money. In other words, if you have land to lease – for an up-front, one-time payment and the promise of royalties once production starts – you have a lot of cash to gain from the backyard industrialization.

At least that’s what my host thought. He signed a lease that gave control of his 10 acres to a gas company and received $30,000 up front. He watched as a rig drilled a well on his neighbor’s land, 1,000 or so feet away, but the well didn’t travel under his property. So no royalties. He watched as eight more wells were drilled in the hills all around, but again none extended under his land. So again, no royalties.

Then, a few weeks before my visit, he received a letter from the gas company that leased his land. A well nearly a mile away is going to extend under his property. It will secure the company’s rights to the entire 10 acres indefinitely. But as it turns out, the well will only reach under 0.14 acres of the property. My host’s royalty payment will be based on that. Which brings us back to the math: 0.14 (my host’s land) divided by 523.77 (the total acres of land in the well unit) times 0.17 (the rate of royalty payment) equals 0.00004544 (my host’s share of the value of the gas produced by the well).

As my host told me the morning after the BBQ with an I-had-a-feeling-all-along tone to his voice: ‘Isn’t that special?’

The things I carry

On my first day heading into North Dakota oil country in May, I walked past a driftwood stick. This seemed a sort of sign, as trees are few on the prairie, and this stick was perfect for walking. So I picked it up and took it with me. Here it is on day six of that journey through the plains.

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It didn’t seem right to leave it behind, so – very long story short – the stick flew in a Delta luggage bay back to New Hampshire with me.

I brought the stick along on this walk through the Marcellus gas country of New York and Pennsylvania. Here it is resting outside the court house in Owego, New York.

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The stick has proven a crucial companion on this walk. For one thing, it seems to send a signal to people who see me wandering some rural stretch of road with my backpack: that guy means to be out here walking. And that often leads strangers to ask questions, which brings interesting encounters that teach me about life in gas country, the thing I’ve come to see in the first place.

There is more inside that pack, of course. Walking clothes and resting clothes. Rain gear. Water bottles. A first aid kit. A tent and sleeping bag. A cook stove. Food for the road. Water. A list of reporting contacts. And, naturally, notebooks, pens, and my iPhone.

I have experience with this stuff, so I try to keep things light and only to the most essential. But walking and working for 70 miles requires a lot, and my pack weighed in at 45 pounds. After three days on this outing, I started to crave a lighter pack, so I left a few things with new friends in Owego: Long underwear. A rain parka. And, knowing food would be more available in the settled East, my stove and cooking pot.

But I kept my tent and sleeping bag. The independence that comes with carrying shelter is key when wandering rural roads. I set off yesterday on a 20-mile route with no public land along the way. I hoped to stop somewhere for the night, and I knew once again I would be counting on the kindness of strangers – someone to offer up a distant corner of field where I could sleep for the night.

At about 5 pm on a beautiful afternoon, I stopped at a hidden house with a backyard creek that babbled and asked the man working on his window if I could sleep on his land for the night. He said sure, the first offering of hospitality that included cold Rolling Rock and a BBQ with his wife and grown kids and a window into their experience living in a gas field, including thoughts about the well a quarter-mile up the road and the royalty agreement they received in the mail just two weeks ago.

But that too is a long story, which I’ll have to carry on with me until I have time for another post here.

Going to the gas well

A small town’s big summer

Five years ago, landowners who joined in signing the Friendsville Group Lease negotiated what they consider very favorable terms from Talisman Energy: $5,500/acre up front, and 20% royalties once the well goes into production. Five years later, and the quiet borough of Little Meadows, tucked in the northwest corner of Susquehanna County, is seeing some action. High atop facing ridges, rigs have been drilling the York and Capriot wells. Hundreds of water trucks are filling holding ponds with millions of gallons of water to frack the wells, and thick stands of forest and open field are being opened up for pipeline that will carry away the gas.

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Now land owners, most of whom are eager for the action to begin even though the state Department of Environmental Protection has determined that at least 209 water wells have been impacted from drilling, are waiting to see what kind of royalties will come rolling in.

I walked into this small town’s big moment yesterday, as the wells are both about a mile south of the New York-Pennsylvania line. Before I arrived, one local told me by phone about this summer, the true significance of which may not be felt for years: “You clearly are hitting this area at the right time.”

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