A failing business is a risk to not just the business owners, but others as well. Desperation and fear are not the best motivators for making good decisions. And owners of small family businesses like farms face all the additional pressures of pride and history. I'm convinced it's one the reasons the strong recommendations from a handful of commissions and public inquires (the latest from Judge Ralph Thompson) to bring in land zoning to protect farmland just gather dust. After a decade of losses farmers want to maintain every opportunity to cash in on development opportunities so they can walk away with something once the debts have been paid. They end up fighting the very thing most know is badly needed. It certainly skews the discussion over turning food crops into fuel. Farmers have looked greedy and short sighted pushing for ethanol production, but peel away the rhetoric and you find that what farmers really want is a profitable market to sell into, period.
I haven't read as good a discussion of this dilemma than this piece from the weekend about a farmer's decision to allow shale-gas exploration on his farm. Throughout the piece you get the sense that if the dairy and cattle farms were profitable, the farmers would be in a much stronger position to assess the enormous environmental risks from fracking, but, as the saying goes, when you've got nothing, you've got nothing to lose.
October 22, 2011
Drilling Down on the Family Farm
By SEAMUS McGRAW
Seamus McGraw is the author of “The End of Country.”
Ellsworth Hill, Pa.
A CLOUD of dust and sand and diesel exhaust, thick as a desert windstorm, snaked up into the sky and blotted out the midsummer Pennsylvania moon. The scene was backlighted by 100 high-powered lights glaring from the top of a 70-foot-tall, hundred-yard-square acropolis of broken stone carved into our hillside.
Standing there, in what used to be my family’s pasture, I was surprised by my own feelings as I watched a small army of workers rev up the machines that would crack open the Marcellus Shale deep below my land, the same rich cache of gas that New York now seems poised to exploit.
I thought I was prepared for it. I had seen this operation before, on other people’s land. I had even been mildly impressed by the military precision of it all, by the way the roughnecks moved wordlessly among the massive water tanks arrayed around a drill pad the size of a high school football stadium, while others monitored the gargantuan pump itself, a 40-foot-long battleship of a machine that would blast a toxic cocktail of water and up to a dozen chemicals a mile and a half deep into the earth at more than 9,400 pounds of pressure per square inch to shatter the rock and release the gas trapped inside it.
But now that it was happening on our 100 acres, I could understand in a much more visceral way why the word to describe this process — fracking — stirs such fear. I could even feel the stirring of that fear myself.
It hadn’t been an easy decision to let the drillers onto our land four years ago. Not for me, not for my family, not for our neighbors, most of them former dairy farmers who had, over the years, been slowly strangled, driven out of business in part by spiraling energy prices. To us, the land was more than a spot on a driller’s map. It was home. The sum of who we are.
My parents bought the place 40 years ago. It started out as a weekend retreat but quickly became an obsession. We’d usually spend three or four nights a week there, trying to indulge my father’s dream of becoming a gentleman farmer and my mother’s dream of becoming a character in one of the frontier romance novels — buckskin bodice rippers, she called them — that she adored. My mother succeeded in achieving her dream. The same could not be said of my father. For a few years, he tried to press me into service in a never very successful attempt to raise beef cattle. We had about 40 head. My heart wasn’t in it.
Ultimately, my father quit trying. When I turned 18, I shook the dust of that place off my boots, headed off to college for a while, failed at that, and then failed at a series of jobs and marriages until I drifted into journalism and never figured out how to drift back out of it. But the place was always with me. It defined me. I went back every chance I got. My sister was married there. So was I, the third time at least. My father died there. I had always imagined it the way I remembered it. But it wasn’t that way anymore.
The working dairy farms that used to surround us had failed, most of them choked to death by a complex system that held the price of milk in check while energy prices, which drove up the cost of everything on those farms, spiraled upward. Those who could leave did, selling off their land, often in small chunks to people from New York or New Jersey who imported with them a fantasy of country living. Little by little, the country I had known, that whole way of life, was vanishing. It was, as one of my neighbors put it, “the end of country.”
And now, the drillers were coming.
The way I saw it then, the way I still see it, is that there was a sense of inevitability to it all. It wasn’t just about the money. Though some of us, like my own family, were offered hundreds of thousands of dollars for our mineral rights, others, like my neighbor across the road, who signed before the full potential of the Marcellus was understood, got a pittance, just enough to pay their property taxes. It was about something more important. The way we saw it, maybe the gas in the Marcellus could buy us one more chance. Sure, it could also very well turn out that those long strands of $10 words in the contracts the companies offered would be a noose, binding us to an industry that would poison the last valuable possession we had. But they could also be a lifeline.
Tapping the more than 400-trillion-cubic-foot reserve of gas in the Marcellus could allow a farmer to keep his land and keep it intact. He might lose a few acres, maybe 5 or 10 if the drillers decided to put a rig on his land to suck out the gas from below his farm and the others they had leased for a mile around. He might lose none, if the drillers decided that all they really needed from him was the gas underground. He could keep farming if wanted to. And if he didn’t, well at least this was a chance to keep one more generation on the land, and in the process buy all of us a little time to figure out how to cut through the ropes that bind our fortunes to the political intrigues of a half-dozen oil-rich countries on the other side of the planet and the speculative games of oil traders in New York.
We were not entirely ignorant of the risks. We understood that what was coming to our little corner of Pennsylvania, and all over the state, was an enormous industrial operation.
It takes as many as 400 truck trips to complete a single well, and that’s not even counting the fuel-guzzling equipment needed to alter the ancient land to carve out the three- to five-acre drill pad itself. Once that’s done, the diesel drill rigs arrive, towering diamond-tipped syringes that work round the clock, often for two weeks at a stretch, to bore down 7,500 feet or so into the Marcellus before making a 90-degree turn to bore another mile and a half laterally. It’s a dirty, noisy, energy-intensive process, and despite the industry’s boast that natural gas burns 30 percent cleaner than oil, in the Marcellus the hunt for it is still fueled almost entirely by diesel.
And that’s not the only resource that’s consumed. It takes millions of gallons of water to break up the shale, and at least 30 percent remains underground forever. The rest of it, along with the slightly radioactive, highly saline and heavy-metal-laden water that has existed alongside the shale for 400 million years, flows up to the surface over the lifetime of the well.
IT’S a perilous process. There is the risk of surface spills — of the fracking fluid or flowback water, or even of diesel, whether held on the site to fuel the process or dumped when a driver fails to navigate the hazards on back roads never meant to handle this kind of traffic. Groundwater has also been fouled by drifting methane that migrated because the drillers, by dint of ignorance or carelessness or just plain bad luck, failed to properly isolate those deposits with cement.
This will never be a perfectly safe operation. No industrial process ever is. There will always be risks of accidents, mechanical failures, human error. That’s every bit as inevitable as the development of the Marcellus itself. There will never be enough regulators to police all the trucks and tanks and rigs that will cover the Marcellus from New York State to the Kentucky state line in the next few decades. In the end, the responsibility for monitoring this, for holding the industry to its promises and responsible for its failures, will fall where it has always fallen — on the shoulders of the people on the ground, the people whose lives will be most directly affected.
Standing there in what used to be our pasture on that light summer night, watching as the machinery of progress blasted the rock a mile beneath my feet, I realized that was what scared me the most. Not that this was inevitable, but that its impact depended so much on me, on whether I had the character to come out from behind the convenient shield of “are you for it or against it” ideology and find the strength, the will and the means to do what I can to make sure this is done in the best way possible.
I still don’t really know the answer.