March 31, 2011 —
My wife and I are landowners in Wayne County, PA. Eighteen months ago, as members of a local landowners’ alliance, we signed a lease for natural gas exploration on our property. Although there were a number of complicated reasons why we chose to sign a lease through the alliance, the desire to someday see a gas well on our property was not among them.
Several years ago, when we first learned about the prospect of natural gas drilling in our region, we were deeply concerned about the risks, and decided that we needed to learn as much as possible about the process. The most disappointing thing we learned was that Pennsylvania’s Oil and Gas Laws were written with a much greater emphasis on meeting the needs of industry than on protecting the interests of landowners. From every direction, we heard the same thing, “Whether you sign a lease or not, you’re going to be surrounded by gas drilling.” As such, we believed that joining an alliance of our neighbors was a smart thing to do, and in many ways, it was.
Through the alliance, we got mountains of information about gas drilling. Attorneys specializing in gas leases were consulted, and a lease was created that contained much better landowner protections than any we’d seen before. More importantly, the idea that there is strength in numbers appealed to us. Surely, working together with a network of landowners to negotiate better protections for our properties against the impacts of industry would be a more valuable approach than waiting around for the state to protect us with inadequate laws that were in many cases written by lobbyists for the gas industry.
We do not necessarily regret joining the alliance, but we have serious concerns about the public positions that the alliance’s leadership have taken. Our goal initially was to ensure the greatest possible protections for our property, and thanks to the collective work of the many volunteers in the alliance, we think the resulting lease will help us in working toward that goal. However, the alliance’s lease represents only one small part of what is needed. The protections contained within it will only be as strong as the collective voice of landowners who are willing to stand up and communicate to the gas industry that we will be watching and that we will also be looking out for one another as neighbors.
Sadly, I do not believe that this is the message now being communicated to the industry by a relatively small, but publicly vocal group of landowners who presume to speak for all of us. I’m having difficulty understanding how the alliance will be able to function in helping neighbors to look out for one another while any person daring to raise legitimate concerns about the environmental impacts of gas drilling is immediately branded and dismissed as an “anti.”
To be fair, those folks are well within their rights as free Americans to be “pro-drilling,” and they have every right to say so in public. However, many landowners (and many within the alliance) don’t necessarily share this over-simplified point of view. Many were compelled to sign leases out of financial necessity and/or because they didn’t think they had much of a choice. Many are still deeply concerned about the potential impacts to their land, water and communities by an industry that has so far demonstrated a rather poor track record in relation to these concerns.
Landowners who regard government regulations on gas drilling as an unfair infringement of their property rights should be willing to consider the possibility that, when it comes to industrial activities of this magnitude, government regulations represent a necessary set of limitations on that which industry will be allowed to do to us and our properties. My view is that we, as landowners, should be looking for as much protection from the gas industry as we can possibly get.
[Ken Mayers lives in Browndale, PA with his wife Jennifer and their children.]