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The Catskills Gas Rush

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A well site drilling for gas in the Marcellus Shale in Upshur County, West Virginia.  

Already perhaps 60 oil and gas companies have submitted drilling applications in New York and Pennsylvania, says Paul Swartz, executive director of the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, a multistate and federal governmental agency protecting aquifers in 67 counties. “We’re only now at the beginning part of what is going to be an enormous activity here in the years to come,” he tells me. In northeastern Pennsylvania, the drilling rigs have already begun operating. That hasn’t happened yet in the main New York gas counties of Broome, Sullivan, Otsego, Chenango, and Delaware. But this summer, Governor David Paterson signed a bill streamlining the permit process, so groundbreaking could begin in the spring.

Meanwhile, county clerks’ offices report being choked with landmen filing deeds. “It’s a gas rush, that’s what it is,” says Ronny Murphy, a real-estate broker in Bethel, New York, about 100 miles upstate on Route 17. Dan Rather, Debra Winger, Jennifer Lopez, and Marc Anthony all weekend nearby. Already a massive infrastructure is being put into place to anticipate the march of wells across the Catskills. “Right now, they’re bringing gas pipelines through. Every ten or fifteen minutes, by my office, the trucks come by. Up in Callicoon, you see the swath. They’re cutting this huge channel and laying new pipe. Eventually it will grow over again, but right now it’s Oh my God.

Once those wells hit and gas starts reaching the marketplace, one thing is certain: Outrageous sums of money will flow to some of the poorest communities in the area. “We’re talking about a lot of money,” says Tom Murphy, a Penn State educator who helps landowners understand their rights. “We’re on the early side of this, so people are still trying to get their hands around how big this impact will be. But in Pennsylvania alone, you could be looking at half a trillion dollars or more over the course of this play as it develops here in the state—big bucks.” In some parts of Pennsylvania, faraway investors have been snapping up land with dreams of becoming gas magnates, Murphy tells me. “People are buying it sight unseen. It doesn’t even matter what it looks like. What matters is what’s 8,000 feet underground.”

Still, when Glassmire’s letter arrived, it felt like a draft notice. Just last year, we were dodging bullets in another energy uprising. Wind-turbine companies had leased several nearby farms with a plan to march towering pinwheels across their mountain ridges. Most of our friends with second homes in the area abhorred the thought of these structures dominating the horizon. They wrote fulminations to the local paper and circulated videos showing how much taller these things were than the Statue of Liberty, how their blinking lights would perforate the evening sky. Real-estate brokers warned that tourists would abdicate and property values plummet. They pressed for a moratorium and possibly an outright ban in defense of what they began calling “the viewshed.”

Many year-round residents had a different perspective. Besides being clean energy, turbines meant needed income, a last chance to save the family farm. They rejected the suggestion that their sagging barns were someone else’s visual entitlement. As the two sides went to battle in Andes, Bovina, Meredith, Roxbury, and Stamford, the mutual animosity between locals and “flatlanders” was laid bare, with ballot-box shenanigans, shoving matches, and ad hominems. In most instances, for better or worse, the flatlanders have prevailed (for the record, as green fetishists, my boyfriend and I quietly supported the wind farms).

But Glassmire told me he hadn’t encountered much opposition. Only one of my neighbors told him to get lost. Since then, he said, a landowner in Western New York had chased him back to his car with a baseball bat, but mostly he worked his charm to good effect. “I always do the There Will Be Blood impression. I’m like, ‘You have your milkshake, and over here, this is my milkshake, and my straw goes into your milkshake and sucks it up.’ ” He laughed Daniel Day-Lewis’s laugh, then reeled himself in. “No, really. I was leasing you and Delaware at $125. That was the most I was able to offer. But here, it’s $2,500—they’ve added two zeros. The competition is great. It’s the most rural kind of beautifious, green-heaven kinds of places, overflowing with these companies. It’s good for the area, economy-wise. Now probably it’s fair to say the sky’s the limit—that’s the challenge. There’s the terrestrial versus the beyond. We’re going beyond.”

I asked him to explain the environmental impact. “I would say you’d have a brief world of chaos and noise for some weeks,” he said. “Then they take away the rig and you have a well—a real innocuous well, the size of a small car.”


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