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The Catskills Gas Rush

It was a weekend house—until I got a letter from the landman, telling me I was living on a huge, untapped source of natural gas. Riches beckoned. How much were my environmental principles really worth?

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I first learned of the natural-gas land rush that is gripping some of the most scenic areas of New York and Pennsylvania when a thick envelope arrived in my upstate mailbox. The letter, signed by someone named Daniel F. Glassmire VI, was written in an ostentatiously baroque language that, as even he seemed to acknowledge in a dense preamble, could be mistaken for gibberish. I didn’t understand it at all until I corrected his punctuation and read it out loud.

“Hello,” it began. “My name is Danny, a young man in the way of prospecting, for about 14 months wet behind the ears but now and again really sharpening this experience of newness. Through all that—or anything else of importance (or trivia)—I would really like you to get an involved look-see into the dimensions of this Leasing proposal … I would clearly within this matter really look forward to meeting, if it would be possible, you at your residence for as long as you like, and for remaining in communication as many times as would follow for you in the best assurances of clarity. You are the decision-maker. The only possible goal would be to keep to your decision. What I have to show you is a mere compliment to where you go in decisions, and what is said through any presentation only has influence through your clear and finalizing decisions. It should hopefully be fun enough, as it ought to remain, regardless of turnout, as the stuff of interest.”

My boyfriend and I own a former dairy farm near Margaretville, New York, a tiny Catskills village in Delaware County. Half its 95 acres are rolling pastures. The rest is a dense forest canopy, the teeming home to enough bobcats, coyotes, bears, minks, and game birds to fill a season on the Discovery Channel. We entertain hippie dreams of one day raising sheep and goats (or quince or tilapia or anything organic).

From stoop to porch, the drive is exactly three hours. Before 9/11, that was generally considered too far away. So we got the place—and a run-down six-bedroom Victorian farmhouse—for next to nothing. Now, thanks to Al Qaeda, people like the feel of distance. They’ve pushed up prices tenfold. Still, it’s nothing like the Hamptons, at least not yet. There’s no high-stakes social swirl, no see-and-be-seen. We spend our evenings on our respective porches thankful for the unspoiled mountain expanses and sagging dairy barns that separate us, no light but the twinkling stars.

Almost two miles below our farmhouse, it turns out, is a mother lode of natural gas we knew nothing about. Glassmire enclosed a proposed lease, our names already inked in. It offered $125 per acre. This was just a bonus for signing. If the wells hit, we’d also get 12.5 percent in future royalties. This, he assured us, was likely to make us comfortable. He didn’t say how comfortable, but among the many things he shows landowners is a handwritten formula titled “Estimating Natural Gas Royalty.” Wells on our farm might produce 5 million cubic feet of gas per acre per day, it says. At today’s prices, our projected share could be worth $9,000 every day. That’s over $270,000 a month. If each well’s lifetime production is between 3 billion and 4 billion cubic feet of gas, as one oil company has projected, we’ll have a tax headache in the $7 million range.

Let’s say he’s grossly overinflated the potential windfall. Cut it in half, cut it to a tenth, it doesn’t matter. It is very much the stuff of interest.

But by the time I called him back, Glassmire had been reassigned to points west, staking out parcels in rural Susquehanna County, just across the border in Pennsylvania. “They pulled the plug on your prospect,” he told me apologetically. “They weren’t confident about the geology, which was too bad, because I had a thousand acres ready to lease.” He named names, including the owners of just about every rolling knob of the Catskills visible from my porch. I asked him what could be wrong with the geology, but that was above his pay grade. “That’s the sparkling mystery of it—is there stuff under those grounds?” he said. “Could be. Or maybe somebody got fired. Maybe they changed their mind. Hopefully they’ll be back.”

Come summertime, they were circling again. The Gas Era is coming, and the landscape north and west of the city will inevitably be transformed as a result. When the valves start opening next year, a lot of poor farm folk may become Texas rich. And a lot of other people—especially the ecosensitive New York City crowd that has settled among them—will be apoplectic as their pristine weekend sanctuary is converted into an industrial zone, crisscrossed with drill pads, pipelines, and access roads. The struggle has already begun between those who will take the money and those who won’t—between “locals” and outsiders, optimists and pessimists, them and us.


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