Appalachian Basin

Fact Check: Natural Gas in Bradford County

Nicole provides a run-down of how to fact check some of those scary “urban legend” type stories and natural gas anecdotes that seem to litter the pages of anti-gas blogs and even some newspapers.

If you search “fracking” on the internet, you’ll find one anecdotal story after another littering websites supposedly offering a “real” look at natural gas development. All of them, of course, are negative in tone.  As someone who was on the fence on this topic only a couple of years ago, I can attest to how difficult this can make it for someone searching for honest-to-goodness facts on the development process.  It can be downright exhausting.  The advice hammered into us over many years of school to always make sure you know your source couldn’t be more appropriate, but it’s all too easy to forget when passions seem to rule the day.

We hear from varying sources that we should not trust the industry, the activists, the universities, the regulators, the government, or the landowners. So where does one turn when looking for real facts, real pictures and a real perspective on what’s occurring?  Well, realistically, that depends on what information you are seeking, and probably a combination of all of the above will give the best perspective.  A recent anecdotal story on Bradford County written by Carol French offers a great opportunity walk through the ways to fact check.

Only the Shadow Knows

French’s story is filled with hyperbole and baseless assertions intended to raise suspicions of something nefarious taking place in the shadows.  Consider, for example, this statement:

French:  In the early spring of 2006, a nice man was in the area, promoting a chance to dream of better times for Bradford County and its farmers. There was promise of jobs for everyone and the farmer would generate money from signing a lease, and if a gas well was drilled on the farmer’s property he would become rich.

There are a vast array of sources out there to check the validity of this statement.  French has made it all out to be some sort of pipe dream, but is it?  In fact, individual landowners have become very wealthy from the leasing and/or development of their lands, local economies are booming and more local people are employed than ever.  But, don’t just take my word for it.  Google some terms like “Bradford County unemployment,” “Bradford County economic development,” “Bradford County impact fee,” and take a look at some independent sources like the Central Bradford Progress Authority or the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. Here is some of what I was able to find doing these searches:

  • “Bradford County, located in the northeast Pennsylvania, now owns the distinction of lowest unemployment rate — it fell to 5.1 percent in February.” (Daily Collegian, April 2011)
  • Current unemployment rate in Bradford county is (as of August 2012) 6.6 percent, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry’s Marcellus Fast Facts.
  • “For example, gas industry spending (excluding leases and royalties) to drill the 386 wells in Bradford County during 2010 likely was around $2.4 billion, given average per well expenditures. This is larger than the size of Bradford County’s total economy in 2009, which was $1.8 billion, as measured by total person income (U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis).” (Economic Impacts of Marcellus Shale in Bradford County, 2010, p. 7)
  • Also from that study (page 9):

We also know the new Marcellus Shale impact fee will help ensure everyone in the county benefits positively from the activity happening within.  Bradford County will, in fact, receive $8.4 million this year.  (For more on this subject, read this article, which breaks the allotments down by municipality.)

Given these realities, French’s implication that Bradford County is somehow not experiencing “better times” simply doesn’t mesh with the facts.

Leasing Is A Market Based Negotiation, Not A Giveaway

French:Here, the majority of farmers signed early, receiving $5 – $85/per acre. There was this belief that the person with the gas well would become the next “shaleionaires.”  We later found out small acre properties started signing leases at $2,500/ per acre

This one’s true but where’s the problem?  Leasing bonuses did vary widely throughout the region depending on when someone signed, what they negotiated, if they had signed leases previously, desirability of the area and interest by multiple companies, to name just a few factors.  Many people simply re-upped historical leases that had been in place off and on for many years. Another factor with the initial leasing was the fact the Marcellus Shale play had not yet been proven.  Offers were lower at the outset simply because gas companies were taking unknown risks.  Naturally, as reserves proved out, leasing prices went up.  This is not the fault of the farmer, nor is it the fault of the industry – unless you believe the industry can predict the future (last we checked, Miss Cleo was not employed by a natural gas operator).

Leasing is a business negotiation that some people handled really well either on their own, with a lawyer or through a coalition, or not so well, as was the case with our own lease where we signed for substantially less than our neighbors.  We don’t regret it, as we have small acreage and it was still a new influx of money for us.

Leasing offers take many forms and the market is ever changing, but there are some great resources online to help landowners make educated decisions on these matters.  If a landowner has been approached by a land man or woman for a gas lease, pipeline or other infrastructure, they can visit a variety of forums to review their options and experiences against others within their area.  Some great ones are:

So, French does fact check on this one but, nonetheless, manages to draw precisely the wrong conclusion.  The open market in leasing is what makes natural gas exploration possible.  Signing bonuses aren’t giveaways.  They’re investments – and just think where Bradford County’s economy would be without those early investments.  Today’s royalty payments are possible, in a very real way, because gas companies could afford to risk the early investments in development.  Most landowners see it that way.


DEP Is No Joke

French: Our state agency refuses to test our water; therefore the gas company will not provide water for our cows and my family.

French is not living in the real world if she thinks the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) isn’t paying attention.  DEP investigates every formal complaint filed with the agency.  If anyone believes there is an issue with their water or soil, regardless of source, there are procedures for reporting an incident and ensuring it is appropriately addressed, which includes water testing.  Here is, in fact, what DEP offers on its website (which is also a valuable resource for identifying wells permitted and drilled, researching regulations and learning more about Marcellus Shale development in Pennsylvania):

Spills and other emergencies should be reported immediately to DEP by telephone to the regional office or by calling 1-800-541-2050.

The Department of Environmental Protection has a toll-free citizen complaint line available for Pennsylvanians to report environmental problems in their community. Citizens can report any environmental complaint at no cost by calling 1-866-255-5158. When calling the number, seven choices are offered. The first six choices represent DEP’s six regional offices and the counties covered by each respective region. The seventh connects callers to a personal operator who can help direct the call.
Please select the appropriate region where you live to contact a Regional Service Representative in your area.
  • Northcentral Region – Bradford, Cameron, Centre, Clearfield, Clinton, Columbia, Lycoming, Montour, Northumberland, Potter, Snyder, Sullivan, Tioga, Union
  • Northeast Region – Carbon, Lackawanna, Lehigh, Luzerne, Monroe, Northampton, Pike, Schuylkill, Susquehanna, Wayne, Wyoming
  • Northwest Region – Butler, Clarion, Crawford, Elk, Erie, Forest, Jefferson, Lawrence, McKean, Mercer, Venango, Warren
  • Southcentral Region – Adams, Bedford, Berks, Blair, Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, Fulton, Huntingdon, Juniata, Lancaster, Lebanon, Mifflin, Perry, York
  • Southeast Region – Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, Philadelphia
  • Southwest Region – Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Cambria, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Somerset, Washington, Westmoreland
  • District Mining Operations – Mining/Blasting Complaints

Does this look like an agency that isn’t doing its job?  Hardly.

A landowner can also contact any company operating in the area to ask questions, file complaints and address issues.  Most natural gas companies have a hotline to call.  Any reader who does not know how to reach an operator should send us an email. We’ll be more than happy to help.

Anecdotes Aren’t Evidence and Stories Aren’t Facts

French: The local newspaper was reporting contamination found in water wells, death occurring on a gas pad and the farmer was facing the fact that he could lose his farm due to a lawsuit based on the gas companies operation.

My water changed March 15, 2011.  It now turns white, with a green moss settling on top of sand.  Then the water becomes gelatin like.  My daughter became sick in October of that year with a fever, weight loss (10 pounds in 7 days), and severe pains in her abdomen.  At the hospital they found her liver, spleen and her right ovary were extremely enlarged.  My daughter moved out of the state.  Our neighbor living north of us had the same health issues after her water changed in March of that year, except her spleen burst three days after she went to the hospital.  We knew our daughter would have to leave Pennsylvania in order to have a chance of a healthy, normal life.  We don’t drink the water or the milk from our cows now.  We still have to bathe in it.

There are for sale signs in the yard of a contaminated farm that lost 80%-90% of its value, and could lose its milk market.  Who will buy his cows?  On our farm, we and our cows have rashes on our bodies.  I wonder constantly if the milk contains the chemicals that may be in my water, but the regulators don’t test for it.  So many living in our county have “changed” water, and are depending on water being provided to them by the gas company.

In addition to these problems, we have seen trees die, due to the frack water – or “produced water” – and hydro chloric acid spills in Franklin Township.

Here’s the problem with these stories.  They are all things we never want to see happen to us or to our families, friends and neighbors. But until they are backed up with proof, they are just that…stories.  No facts are cited in French’s litany that can be verified to determine if the claim is true, if the incident even occurred or what further investigations might have found. Are these claims connected with natural gas development?   We can’t possibly know from what’s been written.

Here’s what we do know, though.  By the time the facts do get put out from credible sources such as DEP, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or scientists analyzing the incident, the anecdotal stories have, far too often, already become a part of the daily natural gas debate.  Many such claims turn out to be overblown or completely wrong, and yet, the damage is done, the fear has been spread, and it’s a lot harder to get someone to look at the evidence after the fact.

Let’s look at two such examples: Google “Dimock” and “Crystal Stroud”

Here are two scenarios that received a lot of media attention during their investigations.  In both cases, regulatory bodies (the DEP and EPA in Dimock and DEP in the case of Stroud), could not find evidence  the natural gas industry had contaminated the complainants’ water supplies.  Yet, both are still being used as fodder by those opposed to natural gas development.  Why?

  • (Reuters) – “The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said drinking water is safe to consume in a small Pennsylvania town that has attracted national attention after residents complained about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for natural gas.” (May 11, 2012)
  • “Granville Summit resident Crystal Stroud’s claim that she suffered barium poisoning by drinking well water contaminated by natural gas drilling has been refuted by a DEP investigation, DEP officials said on Thursday.” (July 8, 2011)

Does this prove everyone who makes a claim is making it up?  Absolutely not. We’d be foolish and so would you if we all believed that. No activity, including natural gas development, is 100 percent risk free.  But, what it does prove is the need to have a level of skepticism when reading these stories, to ask questions, and to find out what the evidence actually shows.  Look at multiple sources, pay attention to the expertise of the person offering the information and keep informed.  If more of us did this before engaging in this debate, we’d be a whole lot closer to the rational middle.

Do you want to see something really scary?  There are plenty of things you could look for, but you’ll likely have to look outside the natural gas industry to find them.


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