Joseph Heath, a lawyer, advises people in Lafayette, N.Y., on how to get out of leases allowing gas companies to drill on their property. Some feel guilty about having signed.
As I report in Friday’s Times, many landowners who leased their lands for natural gas drilling in upstate New York are now having second thoughts.
Millions of acres are under lease by companies eager to exploit the Marcellus Shale, and tens of thousands of landowners have signed leases, although neither the gas industry’s trade association nor state regulators have precise figures.
The environmental group Citizens Campaign for the Environment set out to keep track. In a report issued in July, it said it succeeded in identifying 20,000 leases in eight counties in the Finger Lakes region covering 602,000 acres; that amounts to roughly 30 percent of the counties’ land.
In counties like Tompkins and Cortland, about 40 percent of the land is under lease, the report said.
Ellen Harrison, a retired environmental scientist in Tompkins County who organized a group dubbed “Fleased,” made up of landowners who are trying to end their leases, said that several years ago it seemed to make sense to sign the leases.
Back then, she said, the environmental risks surrounding horizontal hydraulic fracturing, the process used to extract gas from dense shale, were not as widely debated as they are today.
Aside from the money and promise of royalty payments on any gas sales, she said, many leaseholders viewed natural gas as a cleaner alternative to coal as a source of energy.
“We use gas,” she said. “We didn’t want to be Nimby.”
The pitch from the gas companies’ representatives, known as landsmen, were effective, she said. All of your neighbors are signing up, these emissaries would say, and you might as well be part of it, Ms. Harrison recounted.
Yet three New York attorneys general — Eliot Spitzer, then Andrew M. Cuomo, and now, Eric Schneiderman — have fielded complaints from landowners about the landsmen’s pressure tactics. As attorney general in 2009, Mr. Cuomo accused Fortuna Energy, now Talisman Energy, of using “industry-prevalent misleading and deceptive tactics” to secure leases and then pressure landowners into extensions, including the threat of obtaining liens against properties.
To avoid being sued by New York State, the company agreed to remove any liens, rescind its extension letters to landowners and pay $192,500 to the state. Although state law offers some protections to landowners, many say the problems persist.
Dryden, a town in Tompkins County, recently passed a ban on drilling. Property owners like Marie McRae, 67, who leased 13 acres of the land where she lives and boards horses, have become passionate anti-drilling advocates. She said she knocked on doors to get signatures for the drilling ban and is now campaigning for the town board members who approved it so that the ban will remain intact.
Opposing candidates like Deb Shigley, a Republican, said the town “moved too quickly” in passing a ban that possibly could be overturned in court. (A natural gas company has already sued to pursue that goal.)
Ms. Shigley contends that the ban interferes with the rights of landowners who are counting on the drilling income. She adds that she has little sympathy for those undergoing a change of heart.
“If you signed the contract, you couldn’t now say, ‘I didn’t know and therefore I don’t want it,’ ”she said. “You took the money, and you’re under contract.”
On the opposing side, Ms. McRae has been placing newspaper ads seeking votes for her slate of candidates.
She said she become an anti-drilling activist partly out of guilt. “I have to do this,” she said. “I signed my name at the bottom of that lease, and I feel that what I did was give them permission to rape my land.”
As the state works on finalizing drilling regulations after a public comment period that ends in December, it is unclear how many leased areas will actually see wells drilled because of the bans, litigation and the growing ranks of balking leaseholders.
Author: MIREYA NAVARRO
Photography: Guy Solimano
Source: The New York Times