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In My Words: 'Fracking Presents Tough Choices for Rural Poor'

As debate over natural gas extraction intensifies in North Carolina, Associate Professor Mat Gendle uses personal experience to offer perspective.

Associate Professor Mathew Gendle

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The following column appeared recently in the Fayetteville Observer, the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News, the Gaston Gazette and the Shelby Star via the Elon University Writers Syndicate.

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Fracking Will Present Tough Choices for Rural Poor
By Mathew Gendle - mgendle@elon.edu

“Money poisons you when you’ve got it,” British author D.H. Lawrence writes in his 1928 novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, “and starves you when you haven’t.”

There may be no better quote to describe the tension in public debates over the controversial method of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” for extracting natural gas from shale deposits. And when it comes to the pull of the financial salvation for landowners on the brink of ruin, recent developments in North Carolina have left me with a hearty dose of déjà vu.

The North Carolina General Assembly is considering whether to legalize natural gas extraction through fracking, while the city of Creedmoor recently passed an ordinance banning the practice in advance of any legislative approval. On May 21, Gov. Bev Perdue issued an executive order for the formation of a workgroup to create regulations for shale gas exploration and production in our state.

The debate is eerily familiar. My parents’ farm, which has been in our family since the mid 1800s, sits on a prime gas drilling location in New York’s Delaware Valley directly across the state border from the economically challenged northeastern Pennsylvania counties at the national epicenter of natural gas extraction.

Although New York has taken a cautious approach to the development of the gas reserves and currently has a moratorium barring the practice, Pennsylvania has moved quickly to exploit this valuable natural resource. Over the past several years, my family has had a front row seat to view all the drama, economic benefits and environmental drawbacks that have come with the widespread use of fracking in the Marcellus Shale running through upper Appalachia.

To be sure, fracking comes with a high environmental cost. It uses immense quantities of water, and it can significantly alter the landscape of forested and pastoral rural areas. There is reason to be concerned about the long-term polluting effects of fracking on groundwater and agricultural lands, as well as associated damage caused to roadways and other infrastructure from heavy trucks carrying fracking liquid and drilling equipment.

Indeed, one needs to look no further than the small town of Dimock, Pa., featured in the movie “Gasland,” to see an example of the negative environmental impact fracking has had on small rural communities.

But the debate about fracking is deeper and more complex than the simple “cheap domestic energy that creates jobs” versus “centrality of environmental stewardship” dichotomy that is typically played out in the media. The Marcellus Shale sits under a rural and impoverished swath of the upper Appalachians, and the money provided by natural gas leases can be an economic lifeline for struggling farm families.

Make no mistake about the amount of money potentially in play here. Lease rates fluctuate wildly, but offers of several thousand dollars an acre plus a 12-15 percent royalty for extracted gas are not uncommon.

These landowners are not “Beverly Hillbillies” who will take the money from gas companies and move to mansions in the Hollywood Hills. They are people living on farms, struggling day to day. Allowing energy companies to drill for natural gas can help close the gap between what a homeowner earns and what he owes the bank every month.

Ultimately, rural families have to make tough decisions about whether to accept a lease offer from a gas company. These decisions usually pit the potential of extensive damage to forest or farmland, which may have been in the possession of a single family for generations, against the economic reality that signing a lease can be fiscally transforming for a small farm – for example, allowing for the purchase of updated equipment or paying off debts incurred from a past year of poor yields.

I am expecting that rural shale gas development will follow a similar trajectory in North Carolina. The state’s recoverable gas deposits are thought to lie primarily in the Sanford and Dan River sub-basins beneath Lee, Chatham, Moore, Stokes, and Rockingham counties, and it is certain that if shale gas extraction is ultimately approved in our state, there will be many economically troubled rural landowners who will find themselves sitting on a veritable “gold mine” of natural gas.

D.H. Lawrence hits the nail on the proverbial head. We can potentially be poisoned with the money we make, or starve off the money we don’t. It is important that we consider the balance between the noble desire to conserve and protect natural resources with the very tangible economic reality of these citizens as we consider if, and perhaps how, shale gas deposits are to be developed in North Carolina.

It’s even more important that we pass the microphone to those whose land is at the heart of the issue.

Mathew Gendle is an associate professor of psychology at Elon University.

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Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (etownsend4@elon.edu) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.

Viewpoints shared by this syndicate are those of the author and not of Elon University.
 

Eric Townsend,
Staff
5/29/2012 9:48 AM