New York's looking at you, Pennsylvania!
Dan Fitzsimmons has a beautiful view. That has to do with natural gas drilling drilling because the hills of his property a few miles south of Binghamton now mostly reclaimed by scrub.
Fitsimmons used to farm here, but his operation has been locked in a slow decline for decades as he has struggled to cover investments, his taxes, and his $6,000 winter heating bill.
Fitzsimmons has sold equipment piece by piece. "Next thing you know you start selling lots,” he says.
A possible reprieve
However, under Fitzsimmons land there’s much sought after Marcellus Shale gas. Fitzsimmons hasn’t signed a lease yet because of the moratorium on, 'fracking,' the process used to extract the gas in New York State, but he hopes he’ll be able to use the royalties to bring back his farm like he’s seen in Pennsylvania.
New York isn't extracting too much gas from the Marcellus Shale, but Pennsylvania is drilling, and New Yorkers like Fitzsimmons are watching.
“You see orchards going in,” he says. “Those are brand new baby trees that people are putting in. You see truck farming going in now. People are putting in crops."
Taking to the road
Alot of people are heading south. Elected officials, concerned citizens, the chief of Ithaca’s Fire Department have all traveled to Northern Pennsylvania to try and understand what natural gas drilling could mean for the region.
On a hot, late summer afternoon, three visitors from Ithaca pile into a pickup with two Pennsylvania dairy farmers. Carolyn Knapp is piloting the truck down a rural road when there’s suddenly a commotion in the car.
An enormous mound rises up just a few feet behind three small homes. The raised area is an impoundment pond, a lined artificial basin that stores water the drillers use in an extraction process called ‘fracking’.
“That is something!” exclaims one of the visitors. Knapp agrees.
“Isn’t that close.”
Knapp pulls over on the property. Both of the farmers know the owner. They say he is beside himself over the pond. He was promised by the lease negotiator that it would go across the road, but once the contract was signed, Chesapeake Energy, a gas firm, started building in the backyard. Knapp says her first conversation with him lasted two and a half hours.
“This was one of the aha moments for [fellow guide] Carol and I,” Knapp says. “We stopped one day because we just said what would possess families to put it in their backyard. And it wasn’t that.”
The pond went up even though the landowner had taken his contract to a lawyer before signing. Tour guide, Carolyn Knapp did not have the same foresight. She signed a lease years ago with a local company, before the value of gas was well known. She got $85 an acre. Today, she would get $5000 or $6000.
“You do find there are a lot of people don’t open up to you until you tell them you’ve made a big mistake, “Knapp observes. “Because they don’t want to be the first person to say, we screwed up. You know. Because we’re all in it together.”
The Pennsylvania farmers have been trying to organize landowners to write better contracts and get better compensation for their land. But Knapp is cautious. After years now, people still don’t spot potential problems in contracts, and the pace of drilling is picking up.
Fitzsimmons: I've taken precautions
North of the border, landowner, Dan Fitzsimmons says he sees aggressive landmen and faulty leases. But he thinks he knows enough now to avoid the mistakes others have made.
He’s taken precautions, he says. “To have it be the best that I can have it be.”
“I can go out in the dark and I can find my way around and know exactly where I am,” Fitzsimmons says of his property. “I know all the trees all the rocks. I know everything. And I would never be able to go someplace, buy any other land and do that again in my life.”
For now, Pennsylvania is still New York’s guinea pig. The outcome of the experiment is still uncertain.
Pennsylvania farmers look to other states for guidance in a story from Time from 2008.