Thursday, December 15, 2011

Four angles on fracking

In just the last few weeks, the New York Times has published four stories on hydraulic fracturing. The stories' angles on this increasingly controversial technique for releasing natural gas from shale formations range from the legal to the environmental to the political.

One was this story in the New York Times, which highlighted the disappointment of many landowners who have leased their land for natural gas exploration. Here is a brief except from the story by Ian Urbina and Jo Craven McGinty:
Americans have signed millions of leases allowing companies to drill for oil and natural gas on their land in recent years. But some of these landowners--often in rural areas, and eager for quick payouts--are finding out too late what is, and what is not, in the fine print.
Elsewhere, the journalists again pick up the rural economics theme, stating that many of the lessor/landowners are "residents of rural areas where jobs are scarce and farmers and ranchers have struggled to stay afloat."

Energy companies assert that standard leases include language that protects landowners, but the Times story goes on to list trends regarding what is in the leased, based on the Times analysis of 111,000 leases and related documents.
  • Fewer than half require the energy company lessees to compensate landowners for groundwater contamination.
  • Most leases grant gas companies broad rights regarding where they can cut down trees, store chemicals, build roads, and drill.
  • Most leases do not describe to landowners the environmental and other risks associated with fracking, though these risks must be described to investors under federal law.
  • While most leases are for three to five years, two third include provisions permitting the lessee to unilaterally extend the lease for two years, without additional compensation to the landowner.
Urbina and McGinty note that some landowners have joined class action lawsuits against energy companies. The journalists' use of the descriptor "rural" to describe many of the landowner/lessors and their attention to the economic duress of many of these landowners may suggest that landowners are less savvy than their urban counterparts when it comes to negotiating with corporations. On there other hand, their attention to the economic duress which many of these landowners are experiencing may suggest an unfortunate of some judicial decisions I cited in my Rural Rhetoric article, decisions that linked rural gullibility to the need for law's solicitude to their low level of education. Here is my string cite (footnote 39) from that article:

Adkins v. Adkins, 186 Cal. Rptr. 818, 820 (Cal. Ct. App. 1982) (describing respondent as having been “raised in an isolated rural background and [having] received only a third grade education” as partial justification for releasing him from a marital settlement agreement into which he entered without advice of counsel); People v. Vigil, 489 P.2d 588, 589–90 (Colo. 1971) (stating that a criminal defendant from a poor, rural family, who spoke broken English, required “solicitude” of legal system, including more explicit Miranda rights); Lacour v. Sanders, 442 So. 2d 1280, 1283 (La. Ct. App. 1983) (trial court referred to both defendants as “uneducated” men who lived in a rural community); State v. Hamrick, 236 S.E.2d 247, 247 (W. Va. 1977) (describing defendant as “a poor, uneducated, non-verbal resident of rural West Virginia”).

Another is this story regarding the EPA's finding that hydraulic fracturing in Wyoming has caused contamination of groundwater in the so-called Pavillion field. Here's the lede to Kirk Johnson's story:
Chemicals used to hydraulically fracture rocks in drilling for natural gas in a remote valley in central Wyoming are the likely cause of contaminated local water supplies, federal regulators said Thursday.

The draft report, after a three-year study by the Environmental Protection Agency represents a new scientific and political skirmish line over whether fracking, as it is more commonly known, poses a threat in the dozens of places around the nation where it is being used to extract previously unreachable energy resources locked within rock.

The study, which was prompted by complaints from local residents about the smell and taste of their water, stressed that local conditions were unusual at the site ... in that gas wells were far shallower than in many other drilling areas around the country.
The Pavillion fields are located predominantly in vast and sparsely populated Fremont County. The county's population is about 40,000, and the population density is a mere 4.4 persons per square mile.

This December 14 story by Sabrina Tavernise discusses political conflicts that have arisen in southwestern Pennsylvania over what government entities should regulate energy companies exploring for natural gas. The dateline is South Fayette, Pennsylvania, population 13,042--apparently exurban Pittsburgh--and the story highlights the conflict between municipal officials who wish to regulate hydraulic fracturing--to zone it out--and state lawmakers who would allow it more liberally. The story's lede follows:
As energy companies move to drill in densely populated areas from Pennsylvania to Texas, battles are breaking out over who will have the final say in managing the shale gas boom.

The fight, which pits towns and cities against the energy companies and states eager for growth, has raised a fundamental question about the role of local government: How much authority should communities have over the use of their land?

The battle is playing out in Pennsylvania as the Republican-controlled legislature considers bills that would in their current form sharply limit a community's right to control where gas companies can operate on private property.
This quote from Brian Coppola, a self-identified conservative Republican who is an elected official in Robinson Township, west of Pittsburgh, sums up the conflict. He states that the pending state legislation "goes against all my principles. [The legislation] is an enormous land grab on the part of the industry. Our property rights are being trampled." Tavernise's story further details the proliferation of local regulation of the drilling industries, much of which is in conflict with state regulation.

Finally, this story, dateline Youngstown, Ohio, discusses whether fracking and related waste disposal practices are causing seismic activity in places like Youngstown, which had never experienced a quake until March, 2011. Read earlier posts about this phenomenon in central Arkansas here and here.

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