Giant Gas Fields in Eastern U.S. Spark Land Debate

Geologists have long speculated about a massive natural gas reservoir under a deep layer of rock in the eastern United States. But as new technologies have emerged to make it more feasible to extract that gas, reporter Sarah Thomas says the people living above it are facing new and difficult decisions.

The Marcellus Shale Formation is believed to stretch from upstate New York to West Virginia, and as far west as Ohio. Thomas, a staff writer for the Wayne Independent in Wayne County, Pa., says it could be large enough to double the nation's annual output of gas — a scenario that has companies rushing to secure leases for mineral rights. Small-town residents, many of whom have been neighbors for generations, are finding themselves on opposite sides of a heated debate.

"People are approached by what are called 'land men,' " Thomas says. These representatives of natural gas companies offer a standard lease that she says is often $25 an acre, with a return on any natural gas extracted set at 8 percent — far lower than the 30 percent to 35 percent she says is typical in a place like Texas.

"Signing that lease is extraordinarily dangerous for the landowner and the people surrounding them," she says, because the standard lease doesn't always have the protections for the environment or for neighbors that would be part of a well-negotiated agreement.

"These standard company leases exist to give the maximum amount of protection, obviously, to the natural gas companies that are trying to lease the rights," Thomas says.

So far, no gas has been extracted from the Marcellus reservoir. Until that happens, Thomas says, arguments in town halls will continue.

"Wayne County is ... a place that people from, say, New York City, will go to on the weekend to experience the country," she says. "There's the concern ... that this is going to destroy the scenery ... that this is going to contaminate the water table that everybody uses to drink."

But tourism can do only so much for Pennsylvania's rural counties, Thomas says, and the wealth generated by Texas-sized gas fields could be a real boon.

"At the heart of it," she says, "people think it will be a good thing. This is something that could turn Wayne County around."

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