The Landmen Came: Drilling Down in Dimock Township

 

“Who knew it would be this big of a thing?” the retired dairy farmer asked, as a chorus of bugs sounded outside his house in the hot humid twilight last summer. “We thought it was going to be another fly-by-night situation.”

Welcome to once-quiet Dimock Twp. in northeastern Pennsylvania, ground zero in controversy over Marcellus Shale. The state determined that gas-drilling had poisoned drinking water in the area. But many people were still glad they had signed their leases with the perpetrator, Cabot Oil and Gas, even if they didn’t have all the information they could have used when they did.

“They know the right things to say to get you to put your signature on a piece of paper that says they have access to your land,” said the farmer emeritus, who, with his wife did not want to be named, partly for privacy and partly due to not wanting to upset their retirement deal or neighbors.

“The guys that represent the gas companies are called landmen. They’re the ones that bring the paperwork and come out and talk to landowners,” he explained. They’re the appealing salesmen for a new era of energy extraction.

Dimock is a rural township of rolling hills in Susquehanna County, historically famous as the region of the watershed that made its river revered worldwide by Latter Day Saints as sacred, the American River Jordan. It was in this county, amid the flush of early-nineteenth-century utopianism that embraced the valley as a potential “new Eden,” that Joseph Smith began the Mormon rite of baptism. Yet today the blinking yellow light at Dimock Corners is the only indication of a central place. And while the intersection’s name and rural setting echo that of the all-American rural community in Thornton Wilder’s famous play Our Town, last year drill towers were becoming as emblematic of rural life here as old village trees.

Most of two centuries after Smith passed through the region and left it international fame, it is money that is washing over landowners here now from the gas boom, along with the frackwater flushing into the ground and out, and pollution problems tied to the drilling.

But slick “landmen” actually have been approaching Dimock farmers for generations to lease their land for temporary resource extraction of one kind or another, in an old Pennsylvanian tradition stretching back to heydays of lumbering and king coal.

In older days it wasn’t uncommon for landmen to offer as little as a dollar an acre. For the farmers, it was pennies in the bank that often resulted in little disturbance of their land. However, the discovery of Marcellus Shale deposits beneath the farmers’ land began a new era of resource extraction that was anything but free of disturbances while being for many more a mystery in its complexities. Many within and outside the township feel that locals didn’t receive enough information and had little help with navigating the mystery from public officials, even if the area’s political conservatism generally tilts away from government involvement in private landowners’ plans.

Indeed, Dimock’s most famous politician was best known for his silence on this issue. Former U.S. Rep. Chris Carney, a conservative Democrat, lost his bid for re-election last November in a campaign in which he said very little about the hot-potato question of Marcellus drilling in his neighborhood. Over a period of several weeks in his last summer in office, I tried to reach him or his aides for a specific detailed position on the drilling that was the biggest news in his home neighborhood in recent memory, and received little or no response. Even when encountered in person at the Fourth of July Parade in Lewisburg, his response was to ask me to carry a banner for him in the parade, only to fail to follow up afterward with a promised interview.

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