On Carter Road: Private Property and Community Under Pressure in the Gaslands

The Marcellus Shale gas-drilling boom, whatever its benefits and costs, puts unexpected pressure on traditional notions of private property and community in a conservative region of rural America. To see how, take a hike along Carter Road in Dimock Twp. in northeastern Pennsylvania’s scenic Susquehanna County.

Gasland
ProPublica

The dirt road seems like it should be the setting of an idyllic hideaway, scenic and pleasant but ultimately insignificant to all but the families that live there. It turns off from one of the town’s two main roads, the intersection marked by a street sign that, although brand new, looks as if it might have been hand-painted. Leaving the pavement to turn onto this road, a driver seems to enter the middle of nowhere, with forest all around, a big hill on one side of the road, and only a scattering of houses. It is the type of road where a driver can kick up dust in his wake by driving too fast or when the weather has been too dry, but where—one would assume—there is little traffic, so this is not much of a problem. After a while, as the road travels downhill, the trees open up on one side to reveal farmland, but also a construction that seems entirely out of place in this apparently quiet, rural setting. In the middle of the field, right next to an occupied trailer are two big flattened gravel squares, one of them housing four big gray circular storage tanks and a variety of other metallic equipment. These gravel squares are examples, currently inactive but not yet reclaimed, of what are known as well pads: sites for well drilling, hyrdofracturing, and the extraction of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale. And it is this site and others like it that gave the roads of Dimock Township national prominence in the past year.

Dimock, located in scenic Susquehanna County in northeastern Pennsylvania (a county famous worldwide to Mormons as the place of Joseph Smith’s baptism and early work on the Book of Mormon along the Susquehanna River), is home to less than two thousand residents. It contains only one traffic light, which blinks yellow on its main road to allow the traffic from Tunkhannock to Montrose and back to continue unabated, and which blinks red from the intersecting road, functioning as a de-facto stop sign. Up until a few months ago, many of its roads were unnamed, and many of its homes had no street addresses. However, this unlikely town has become one of the centers of the controversy over natural gas drilling, because among its hills, farms, and forests, drilling rigs have proliferated beyond what anyone could ever have imagined—and not all has gone as planned. Its experience raises questions about how twenty-first-century resource-extraction economics in the Susquehanna watershed puts new stress on traditional notions of both private property and community in rural Northern Appalachia.

Texas-based Cabot Oil & Gas drilled its first exploratory well in the Dimock field in 2006 and drilled two additional wells in 2007. Since then, the pace of the drilling has exploded. Cabot drilled twenty wells in 2008; these wells were so successful that they led the company to call the Marcellus Shale a “game-changing event” in its 2008 annual report, noting that its leasings were concentrated over what appeared to be a “sweet spot” in the shale. Cabot drilled fifty-one wells in the Dimock field in 2009, and, according to Cabot’s 2009 annual report, eighty-one more wells were planned for 2010.

With the drilling industry expanding so rapidly in Marcellus Shale regions, sites like the one on Carter Road—well pads and drilling rigs in fields, farmland, and forests—are becoming more and more widespread. The industrial equipment looks completely out of place in these rural settings, but its arrival might just have been inevitable. Marcellus Shale communities have little choice whether or not to accept the spreading industrial activity; nevertheless, the communities impacted by drilling are transformed. Drilling has brought vast amounts of money into economically troubled communities, but it has brought more troubling consequences as well. People are split into pro- and anti-drilling factions and property lines are looked at in a new light, with some finding their property to be unexpectedly valuable and others finding their property to be unexpectedly vulnerable. In Dimock, for some people the drilling “boom” has been hugely beneficial; for others it has been nothing short of catastrophic.

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