By natural gas I don’t mean the embarrassing sort of natural function; rather, my natural gas experience has to do with living on a small ranch in the middle of the Marcellus Shale region of West Central Pennsylvania.
Punxsutawney used to be best known as the home of Phil the groundhog, and we still get visitors from around the globe (as well as thousands of bleary-eyed college students) every February second (Groundhog Day). But this region is becoming known as the center of the massive natural gas fields which are now being exploited.
On our small organic ranch (sheep, miniature horses and miniature donkeys) we have lived through the experience of having three shallow gas wells drilled. We’ve lost several acres of pasturage and had animals let loose by careless gas company contractors and employees – this included 4 miniature stallions which are shorter than 35 inches, but potentially dangerous.
Despite having three new wells drilled, our well and spring water has not been affected. The wells are all over 1,000 feet from each water source, and the gas is several thousand feet deeper than the water.
The Marcellus Shale wells which are on the way are, by contrast, about 10,000 feet deep.Other people have reported problems ranging from loss of water to natural gas in the well water.A few years ago Penn State scientists found a way to access the massive Marcellus Shale gas field by a process known as “fracking”.
Marcellus wells are drilled from a single “pad” which is several acres in size and bulldozed into condition by simply leveling anything in the way.
Next, millions of gallons and an undisclosed mix of several hundred chemicals are pumped into the ground to fracture (hence the term “fracking”) the rock formation, letting gas be collected from beneath scores of acres.
Shallow wells such as the ones already drilled on our ranch use far less material and water but still fill up large plastic-lined pits which are later pumped out.
Natural Gas Drilling – The Up Side
Some companies run rough shod over land owners, especially those like us who bought our land 100 years after the mineral rights were sold.Drilling can come as a big surprise – we had no idea wells would be drilled a decade after we moved in but fortunately the company worked to “do right” by the people whose land they disturb.
The shallow natural gas wells situated on our property are on rocky ground which wasn’t much good except for pasturing animals, and the gas company took our suggestion where their new roads would go and where they would install new gates in our pasture fences.
They also paid a reasonable fee for disturbing the land, about $1,000/acre one time, for the couple of acres they actually damaged.
During the terrible winter of 09-10 they brought bulldozers and loaders to clear paths to the wells, causing no damage and incidentally making it easier for us to get to one barn (our sturdy animals live in the pastures in all weathers with shelter available as needed).
Unlike some unlucky land owners who have no rights left, many small farmers and ranchers benefit from new wells by getting free gas royalties based on the price of natural gas and the amount actually removed from the ground, a well can produce for 100 years or more.
Royalties can be substantial even for shallow wells and for Marcellus Field wells the 12% royalty can run into 6 figures.This is a great benefit to small farmers who almost always have two or three jobs to earn enough to keep up the food-producing farm.
Natural Gas Drilling -The Down Side
Our trouble came not from the drilling but from ignorant or careless workers.
One landscaping subcontractor company hired to reseed the area around the wells had employees who left pasture gates open and scores of sheep escaped. Several times the gas well tenders left gates open, one time with four stallions at the gate so the horses immediately ran away, posing a danger to themselves and others.
Being one of the reasonable companies, our well owners installed double “air lock-style” gates but it was still so disruptive and dangerous that we were forced to sell our more aggressive animals.While we are financially better off, we’ve had to change the entire focus of our small ranch.
Since the Marcellus gas field extends hundreds of miles, we may someday see the giant rig in our back yard and life will change again.