THE LANDSMAN COMETH
This is a narrative of what happened to two Pennsylvanian dairy farmers told by Bob Scroggins of New Milford, PA. Their plights, as told separately by two women, are woven together as one, each filling in the blanks of the other for a complete picture. We’ll give them the singular name, Barbara. This is her story.
Barbara wasn’t getting any younger. Running the farm this year was more difficult than last year and next year would be harder still. She wanted to somehow retire but how? Then came that knock on the porch door. It was the landsman.
After some small talk, the landsman told me I was walking on money. A mile down was a deposit of natural gas. There is a new way to extract it, he explained, that was minimally invasive. Of course there would be some surface disruption but not much and it would be over quickly. Then the gas would flow and so would the money from royalties.
How much money? A lot of money over the 30-year life expectancy of the well, answered the landsman. It seemed like the answer to my prayers. I could not only retire but could possible become a “shaleionaire.”
The landsman was likable, forthright, and sincere. I trusted him. That was my first mistake. He handed me a two-page contract to sign with assurance that it was in my interest.
I glanced over the small print, then signed it. That was my second mistake. Paragraph 15, had I read it, would have given me pause for thought: “no promise on behalf of either party shall be binding unless agreed to in writing.” In other words, what the landsman said, no matter how misleading or false, had no legal standing.
Several months later I woke up to find 18 trucks idling on my land. Bulldozers leveled a drill pad, and a rig went up not far from my backdoor. I should have counted myself lucky. Paragraph 4 read: “no well may be drilled nearer than 200 feet to any dwelling house.” The rig was 500 feet away.
Then came the fleets of trucks carrying water, sand, chemicals, rig parts, heavy-duty construction equipment, diesel engines, fuel, pumps, exotic machinery. This was a 24/7 operation against which I was a helpless observer.
But paragraph 4 was warning enough: “Lessee shall have the right to construction . . . all facilities to discover, produce, store, treat and/or transport production.” And paragraph 8 gave them the right to “ingress and egress.”
In plain language, the gas company had the right to do whatever it wanted whenever it wanted.
My back pasture became an industrial zone.
Then it got worse.
I noticed that the water in the cow trough stopped freezing on cold nights. This affected the cows as well as the marketability of their milk. My tap water turned milky white, then became gelatinous, the faucets sputtered with methane. It was undrinkable.
The gas company agreed to provide water provided I sign a non-disclosure agreement. I didn’t sign. I wanted people to know what was going on.
My royalty check for the first month of production was $1,400. I calculated that based on the volume of gas extracted it should have been more. But that was because I didn’t read paragraph 3: “the amount realized from the sale of gas less all costs of post-production expenses.”
The landsman’s 30-year well production prediction turned out to be two years after which it twindled to 20 percent along with the royalties. My last check was for $70.
The market value of my farm fell 85 percent. My health suffers from the contaminated water I am forced to use for brief showers. The fumes, constant noise from traffic and flaring, and glaring floodlights at night all take their toll.
There is also the anxiety caused by the possibility of the gas company filing a mechanic’s lien. This is a claim on my property incurred by unpaid subcontractors to the gas company.
And if things get a little too sticky for the gas company, there’s paragraph 10: “the lessee shall have the right to surrender this lease after which all payments and liabilities cease.” But the lease denies me the right to opt-out. That, as I found out, is in paragraph 9.
New Milford, PA