Land Grab: Clean Energy Movement Can Leave Communities Divided

The push for clean energy came to Deborah Rogers' farm about a year ago. Rogers, who makes goat cheese near Fort Worth, Texas, was working when she noticed something strange. Two baby goats, seemingly curled up sleeping, wouldn't wake up. They were dead.

Around the same time, Rogers began to notice dozens of gas wells popping up around her property. Worried about the possibility of toxic emissions, Rogers launched a crusade for safer drilling and sought help from local officials who weren't exactly sympathetic.

Natural gas station

"Everyone made it pretty clear to me," Rogers said. "They said, 'Deborah, you're ruining the party.'"

In speaking up about her concerns Rogers stirred a debate in Fort Worth, one of the cities most affected by natural gas drilling.

Similar debates are happening all over the country.

With the clean energy movement, both within the Obama administration and the oil and gas industry itself, kicking into high gear, landowners and land coalitions from Texas to Pennsylvania are leasing thousands of acres to corporations seeking to drill for natural gas. As fossil fuels go, natural gas is viewed as better for the environment, cost-efficient to extract, and in abundant supply.

Photo: Land Grab: Clean Energy Movement Can Leave Communities Divided: Natural Gas Exploration Brings Economic Boost and Environmental Concerns

The Fort Worth area sits atop the Barnett Shale, a geological formation that is rich in natural gas. It is part of a wide swath of America being scoured by geologists, land leasing operations and energy companies in a modern-day land rush, right out of "There Will Be Blood."

Other such natural gas fields, potentially worth billions of dollars, include the Haynesville Shale south of Shreveport, Louisiana, and the Marcellus Shale, which stretches from West Virginia up into the lower part of New York State.

In Broome County, New York, along the Pennsylvania border, there are hundreds of land coalitions set up to negotiate with "land men," an energy-industry term referring to leasing agents. When the agents knock at the door, ordinary people, sometimes financially downtrodden, find themselves staring at a potential windfall.

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Big Money

Ten-year land lease prices can be as a high as $5,000 an acre, and if gas is ever discovered and extracted there are royalties. Simple farmers can become millionaires.

"It's an emotional issue," said Broome County Executive Barbara Fiala. "A lot of this land has been in families for generations. Horse farms, dairy farms. There is a deep love for the land. But this area has been going through tough economic times, so there are those who want to lease, who want drilling. It's the type of thing that can divide a small community."

Take, for example, the story of several long-time friends who for decades shared a hunting lodge not far from Binghamton, New York. Not long ago, they were approached by a firm called Fortuna Energy, which said their property sat on a particularly promising natural gas deposit.

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The owners found themselves debating as well as soul-searching: whether to lease the land to Fortuna and scoop up some sweet cash one day -- or hold on dearly to a place that has long been their sanctuary, no matter the financial temptation.

"We had logical concerns, and some of us were split," said Stephen Haust, 42, one of the owners. "But in the end, we put our differences aside and agreed to lease. There was just too much potential upside down the line."

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