08 June 2009


Wes, from the Catskill Mountainkeeper was along for the ride (and to hold up my window, which, in the Cessna 182, does not stay up with the air currents - and, let me tell you, it’s cold out there in May!) He has a great working knowledge of the area and was able to point down in to the woods and say, “that’s where the drilling permit sites will be located.” I have flown in a lot of planes, and Bob’s is the cleanest and best organized I have seen. I don’t even know how many GPS units he has. There is a funny story about the airsick environmentalist in Bob’s immaculate plane, but we won’t go there.

Some background: the northern end of the very large Marcellus Shale layer is in the Catskills, and is known to contain significant reserves of natural gas, which are located very far down and locked up in the structure of the shale. To get to this natural gas, a process has been developed involving the high pressure injection deep into the shale of tremendous volumes of water and many chemicals known to be very bad for humans; this process fractures the stone structure, releasing the gas, and leaving tremendous volumes of nasty slurry, some of it in the hole, some pumped out into pits, and inevitably, some in the aquifer through which this whole process takes place. The gas companies are coming in to this primarily agricultural area, where per capita income is not high, and offering large payments for leases to drill (farmers vie with teachers to see which can be more valuable to society and more underpaid.) It’s the modern Faustian bargain. These projects require so much effort against the prevailing public cynicism and doubt generated by ignorance and media misinformation- one can get discouraged. But better not to. Our effort here is to present the facts, all of them, in a logical line, so people can see the real, long-term consequences of this decision. Sure, it’s $100,000 easy money, but then there’s a drill rig next to your house and who knows what’s gonna happen to your well, and your neighbor’s well. Oh, did we mention that the Marcellus layer is radioactive, as is anything else brought to the surface?

After the “beauty shots,” the plan was to meet some people that had opted not to sign leases, sometimes in opposition to family members. In this era of the industrialization of food production, it was a real joy to see these farms that are still run by the same families that have done it for generations. Of course, one imagines the Norman Rockwell ideal, and it’s there, but these farmers are savvy, modern entrepreneurs, one family even had a photovoltaic solar array on top of the barn. Now that’s cool.
Imagine that you are the 5th generation steward of the family farm. Do you really want to sign a lease with some Norwegian gas company to build multiple drill rigs all over your land and run the risk of contaminating your neighbor’s well and your own? To paraphrase one of the farmers I met: “Every time I have some business with one of these companies, be it the phone company or whatnot, I turn around and they are trying to plant another pole in the middle of my field, or they are saying it’s my fault they didn’t bury their cable deep enough so my plow caught it.”

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