What Can Landowners and Communities Do About Fracking?

In terms of big picture environmentalism, natural gas exploration is a contentious issue. On the one hand, it is touted as a cleaner, less carbon intensive fuel that can help us transition to renewables. But on the other hand, when life-cycle emissions are taken into account, emissions from natural gas may be 1000 times what has been previously reported.

As Hal Harvey pointed out recently over at Philly.com, if we're going to do natural gas, we must do natural gas right—which means absolutely no leaks; strong regulation of wells; zoning to avoid ecologically sensitive areas; strict rules on what fracking chemicals are used and, crucially, setting systems in place so that natural gas kills coal, not renewables.

But all this is in danger of sounding like theoretical politics if you live in a community that is directly impacted by the new fossil fuel gold rush.

Fracking is happening across the USA, but even in States where the practice is banned, gas companies and "mineral rights agents" are busy knocking on doors around the country buying up the right to drill from landowners who may have no clue what those rights are worth, nor what the potential consequences might be. So we thought we'd take a look at what options landowners (and their neighbors!) have when the fracking companies come knocking.

A natural gas drilling site.© Mark Schmerling

In North Carolina, for example, natural gas deposits have been found in shale formations in the Deep River Basin. Currently horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) are not permitted under North Carolina law, but as with other communities around the country, efforts are underway by industry lobbyists to open up the door to fracking.

In anticipation of a positive outcome, companies have been approaching farmers and landowners about the potential for leasing mineral rights on their properties. The Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) has set up a working group to advise farmers of their rights regarding fracking and the potential consequences of leasing out the gas beneath their feet. (Disclosure: I have previously worked with RAFI on issues unrelated to fracking.) Jordan Treakle, the fracking organizer for RAFI, talked us through what farmers should do if approached about a mineral lease.

1. Always, Always Consult a Lawyer

It's no surprise that contracts for mineral rights, drawn up by gas companies or their agents, are usually of benefit more to the company than the landowner. RAFI advises landowners to never sign an agreement without consulting with a lawyer experienced in oil and gas exploration issues. From potential liabilities to surface access rights, there are so many factors to consider that may impact the health of your land and community, and the operation of your day-to-day business. So go in with your eyes open.

2. Take Time to Consider Your Options

Mineral leases last a long time. Even if you sell your land, the buyer will be bound by the same leases you have signed. And prices for mineral rights vary hugely across the country. In North Carolina, for example, leases are going for as little as $2-3 an acre, while in Penssylvania and New York the prices are more like $2,500-5,000 an acre.

3. Don't Accept Responsibility for Gas Companies' Actions

According to RAFI, some leases attempt to put liability for drilling operations on the landowner, not the gas company. From polluting ground water to causing significant earthquakes, we know for a fact that there can be very serious negative consequences for the broader community, so landowners should be careful about what they are getting themselves into in terms of liability.

4. Understand the Impact on Your Land

Getting paid for deposits you may not have known were there is a tempting offer for farmers trying to make a living, but as noted above—from pollution issues through water use to access rights—there are so many potential pitfalls that could interfere with the viability of a farm or the running of a business. So reading up on the facts behind fracking, asking questions of the gas companies, and thinking hard about the long term vision for a piece of land are all important things to consider before signing away a lease.

But these guidelines focus primarily on the landowner. What about their neighbors? At very least, I would suggest that landowners should consider their relationship with neighbors, and consult the community about their views on fracking and gas exploration. And they should seek legal assurances that their neighbors will be protected. Money is all well and good, but it won't bring you chicken noodle soup when you are sick—so being a good neighbor should be top priority.

Whether or not landowners do consult with their neighbors, there is no doubt that those neighbors should be concerned about what may be going on. Farmers around the country, and in particular organic farmers, have been speaking out about fracking operations and the threat to their livelihoods.

Talking to Treakle at RAFI, it seems that neighboring communities have very few options in terms of legal recourse against the sale of mineral rights. Besides appealing to their neighbor's better natures, and pressuring companies to at least follow best practice methodologies, it seems that tackling the issue in state legislature and pushing for bans and/or zoning restrictions is the best bet for getting some sort of protection.

From New York's temporary fracking ban to Pittsburgh's attempts to stop fracking under parks and cemeteries, activists have had some success in holding back the gas drilling, all the while facing opposition from industry and an uphill battle to contain the negative impacts.

Either way, whether or not you see "responsible natural gas exploration" as a part of our energy future, or fall in to the "no fracking no way" camp, it seems reasonable to say that we must have clear ground rules and transparent process. Every community, whether pro- anti- or on-the-fence about fracking, should insist on nothing less.

And while we're at it, let's use the discussion over fracking to look at the bigger picture of our energy future—how much we use; where it comes from, and what can be done to cut consumption and generate 100% clean energy so we don't have to make so many decisions about which form of dangerous and disruptive fossil fuel we want to rely on in the future. That's what one Transition Town in the UK did when they successfully defeated a planning application for fracking, creating instead a broader, community-wide dialogue about our addiction to fossil fuels and what we can do to get off them. Natural gas may or may not be a necessary evil in the short term, but it's hard to deny that we could be doing a whole lot more to reduce fuel consumption of every kind as an absolute top priority.

What Can Landowners and Communities Do About Fracking?
Fracking is undoubtedly a contentious issue, even more so when your community is at stake. Here's what you can do about it.

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