Jim Willis on NGL Pipelines
Editor & Publisher, Marcellus Drilling News (MDN)
[Editor’s Note: Nothing exposes New York Times elitism like its own writing and a resurrected and extremely condescending story about an old Range Resources case proves it.]
A recently published book that attempts to show fracking in Lycoming County, PA area in the worst possible light, along with a section excerpted from the book running in the New York Times, once again reopens an old case that accuses Range Resources of ruining the water supply for several homes near a fracked well drilled by Range.
In 2011 Range Resources drilled and fracked the Harman Lewis Unit 1H well along Green Valley Road in Hughesville, PA. Following an investigation, the PA Dept. of Environmental Protection (DEP) slapped Range with a record $8.9 million fine in June 2015, accusing the company of faulty casing in its well, leading to methane migration that had contaminated several area water wells.
Range Resources responded to the charge with evidence from the DEP itself and from Range’s own data that (Range says) proves their drilling didn’t cause the problem. Excerpts from that report:
“Before Range Resources – Appalachia, LLC (“Range”) even began drilling its only gas well in the area, the Harman Lewis Unit 1H well, water wells on properties along Green Valley Road contained significant levels of methane and other gases. Specifically, pre-drill sampling and analyses made available by the Pa.DEP, as well as sampling and analyses conducted by Range, demonstrate the presence of natural gas, methane and other constituents, in area water wells at concentrations approaching the maximum solubility of methane in water. In short, it is unquestionable that methane gas in area water wells pre-dates Range’s drilling activity.” (page 2, emphasis added)
“Furthermore, isotopic and compositional analyses of the pre-drill gas in area water wells show that the water well gas is from a source or sources that are different from the production and casinghead gases in the Range well.” (page 2, emphasis added)
“Essentially, there is no objectively verifiable change in the water quality in the Green Valley Road water wells that are the subject of this investigation and the natural gas in these wells could very well be a natural consequence of where they were drilled. Relevant to this inquiry, an outcrop of the Hamilton Group formation occurs only a mile or so to the West and, as stated above, Range encountered gas at a relatively shallow depth (54 feet).” (page 3, emphasis added)
Mechanical Integrity of the Wellbore
“The testing of the Harman Lewis 1H well, specifically the testing performed in March 2012, proved that there is hydraulic isolation between stratigraphic layers in the subsurface preventing flow between zones behind the 5-1/2? well casing. In short, the March 2012 well, temperature, and noise logs confirmed that there is zonal isolation behind the 5-1/2? well casing. (page 18, emphasis added)
“John C. McBeath, a petroleum engineer and licensed Professional Engineer in Texas, Wyoming and California with more than 25 years of well log analysis experience, determined the cemented 5-1/2? production casing of the Harman Lewis 1H well is in compliance with industry standards, and the well does not have defective, insufficient or improperly cemented casing.” (page 18, emphasis added)
In August 2017, Range Resources and the DEP officially settled alleged methane migration from the Harman Lewis Unit 1H well. That settlement caused “outrage” with anti-drillers back then, and continues to cause outrage to this day.
Since 2017 the story resurrects every few years. In 2019 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette took another run at resurrecting it. Interestingly, in that story, a grad student from Penn State University who had studied the issue said his research “suggests a methane plume is moving through the aquifer and causing cascading effects.”
In January 2020 the DEP once again demanded Range Resources fix the problem. After the DEP’s demand to Range, Marian and Lewis Harman, the landowners where the well is located, publicly stated Range’s well is not the cause of their water problems.
Into the fray stepped Colin Jerolmack, a professor of sociology and environmental studies at New York University. Jerolmack spent “eight months living with rural communities outside of Williamsport as they confronted the tension between property rights and the commonwealth.” His aim was to find all the dirt he could on fracking and turn it into a tall tale. He succeeded.
The book, Up to Heaven and Down to Hell: Fracking, Freedom, and Community in an American Town was published in April by Princeton Press. His aim is to convince readers that private landowners should not have the right to lease their own property, that by doing so, they are harming the larger community.
Among the stories he tells (and he is a good storyteller) is that of Mary and Tom Crawley, neighbors of Harmans who own a property with a water well that was (according to the Crawleys) affected by the Harman fracked well.
Appearing in the NY Times last Friday:
I first encountered Tom Crawley eight years ago, when I attended a town hall hosted by a Republican state representative, Garth Everett, in the cavernous volunteer fire hall of Hughesville, a hamlet nestled in the Appalachian foothills of north central Pennsylvania.
I’m an environmental sociologist, and I had recently moved to the area to conduct a study of how shale gas extraction — better known as fracking — was changing rural community life. Attending public meetings like this one seemed like a good way to take the pulse of residents’ concerns.
Representative Everett, a folksy, flannel-clad politician, started the meeting by giving the decidedly older and almost entirely white crowd of 75 or so an overview of his involvement in various legislative committees. He sprinkled his remarks with a few jabs at the state capital, Harrisburg (where it’s hard to find good sauerkraut) and his “urban” colleagues, whose “world and culture is very different than ours.” Many in the respectful audience smiled and dutifully took notes.
During the question-and-answer session, Mr. Everett called on many of his constituents by name. But the spirit of bonhomie was ruptured when Tom Crawley, seated near the back, stood up and declared, “I’ve got a contaminated well as a result of [a petroleum company] that you know about!” (The Crawleys have asked me not to name the company.)
Mr. Everett tried to lower the temperature, acknowledging that the drilling of a nearby gas well very likely impacted the Crawleys’ and their neighbors’ drinking water and apologizing for not following up with the State Department of Environmental Protection to find out what the agency was doing to hold the gas company responsible. Mr. Crawley wasn’t having it. He’d already arranged his own meeting with the D.E.P., he said, after Mr. Everett failed to return his calls.
“We’ve had to do this all on our own,” he fumed. “I thought that you could have done more to help us out.” After Mr. Crawley’s neighbor, Jim Finkler, complained that the water coming out his faucet looked like soda because it was so infused with methane, Mr. Crawley added: “When this first started, we were told this wasn’t going to happen. And if it did happen, we were assured, ‘Oh we’ll take care of it.’ Well, now it happened and no one is taking care of it!” (When I spoke with Mr. Everett later, he said that he had tried unsuccessfully to get the petroleum company to take responsibility; he told me that he regretted that “I couldn’t fix it.”)
As Mr. Crawley left in a huff after the meeting, I approached him in the hope of arranging an interview. But Ralph Kisberg of the Responsible Drilling Alliance and a few other anti-fracking advocates got to him first. It was just as well. Although he had stated earlier that “none of us was against this in the beginning,” Mr. Crawley seemed to be poised to become an “accidental activist” whose experience with contamination would turn him into a vocal opponent of the fracking industry. I figured that Mr. Crawley would welcome Mr. Kisberg’s assistance, and that he and his neighbors would eagerly tell their story to me, or anyone who would listen, soon enough.
I was wrong.
I learned the next day from Mr. Kisberg that Mr. Crawley, who acted as the informal spokesman for the group of six neighbors on Green Valley Road whose water was tainted by gas drilling, politely told the Responsible Drilling Alliance that he and his neighbors wanted nothing to do with them. He also refused to divulge additional details about his experience, or even his name, to the local reporter who wrote about the town hall meeting.
As for me, it wasn’t until the last week of my eight-month residency in Lycoming County that I finally got through to Mr. Crawley and his wife, Mary — and only after a friend of theirs, whom I had interviewed, vouched for me and I agreed not to share their story before my book was published.
After climbing a steep gravel driveway up the hillside from a small creek named Sugar Run, I found the gray-haired and bespectacled empty nesters seated in Adirondack chairs in the front yard of their quaint 8.69-acre homestead. A shaggy dog named Ollie was parked at their feet. This part of the property, Mr. Crawley explained, was a remnant of his grandfather’s 93-acre dairy farm. As a young man, Mr. Crawley realized he “didn’t want to yank” cows’ teats for the rest of his life and found work in a machine shop. But he was proud to have remained on a sliver of the ancestral estate and constructed a home of his own, completed in 1993, that overlooked Crawley Road.
“Mary and I grew up next door to each other,” Mr. Crawley recounted as he cast a mischievous smile at his wife. I asked if they were elementary school sweethearts. “Definitely not, no,” Tom chortled. “Not even high school!” He added, “Matter of fact, if somebody had gone up to her when she graduated from college and said she’d be married to me for” — before he could finish, Mrs. Crawley interjected, “almost 35 years.” Mr. Crawley continued, “she would probably” — Mrs. Crawley again finished his sentence, “I’d have said, ‘Yeah, right,’ and moved on.”
As we got to know one another, I almost forgot why I had come to see the Crawleys in the first place. But a tall, white plastic pipe protruding from the ground near the cap of their water well on the side yard served as a subtle reminder. After their water was infused with explosive levels of methane, the petroleum company that had drilled the suspect gas well on a neighbor’s property installed the pipe to vent as much gas as possible before the groundwater made its way into the house, although the company denied responsibility for the high concentration of methane in their water. The Pennsylvania D.E.P., however, determined that the cause was nearby gas drilling and had cited the energy firm for “failure to report defective, insufficient or improperly cemented casing” of the gas well located on the Crawleys’ neighbor’s property.
Over the two years that had elapsed since the Crawleys stopped drinking their water, the D.E.P. and local politicians had, as they saw it, done nothing to hold the gas company accountable. The Crawleys were at their wit’s end. “Do we have the money for a lawyer for something like this?” Mr. Crawley asked rhetorically. “No, we’re not going to fight a corporation with hundreds of millions of dollars and all their lawyers at their disposal.” Mrs. Crawley added, “We can’t afford to move out and build another house or go someplace else at this point.” She confessed to “standing there at the kitchen sink,” which spat fizzing water, “crying about I can’t take any more of this.”
I couldn’t understand why the Crawleys refused to go public with their story — which might pressure the petroleum company to remedy the situation, or speak with the Responsible Drilling Alliance — which vowed to help them secure a pro bono lawyer. They had nothing to lose, I thought. But as I sat and listened, I learned that the Crawleys’ decision to stay quiet wasn’t about what was in it for them. It was about defending their community.
“The couple that has the property the well is on now, they — I work with their daughter and she says that Mom and Dad really feel bad about this all happening,” Mr. Crawley explained. His wife chimed in, “They’re very upset. He’s afraid everybody would blame him.” Mr. Crawley emphasized that his “major concern with this whole deal is somebody harassing” his neighbors or “camping out” on their property.
The idea was not as outlandish as it might sound. Mrs. Crawley recalled driving past the Riverdale Mobile Home Park, whose residents were being forced out to make way for a facility that would withdraw water from the river to frack gas wells, in the summer of 2012 and seeing a bunch of “picketers” from “out of the area that just came in and camped up there” as part of what supporters called Occupy Riverdale. As Mr. Crawley put it, “These people have no interest in this area other than creating a stink.” Mrs. Crawley shook her head in disgust, “Just like over there in Susquehanna County when Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon came out.” She was referring to a tour bus that “Artists Against Fracking” had chartered in January, 2013 to ferry celebrities and journalists from New York City to the area to publicize cases of alleged contamination.
“Do you have the right to come protesting in my area because of something that’s not going to affect you and you live 100, 200 miles away?,” Mr. Crawley asked of the so-called fractivists. He wondered how many of them “live in a high-rise building that’s heated by gas.” Indeed, sociological research indicates that anti-fracking activism is not, for the most part, NIMBYism — it’s largely a not in your backyard movement spearheaded by progressives living in urban and coastal areas (most fracking occurs in the heartland, and most people who live there support it).
One might think that rural support for fracking can be explained solely through selfishness: Landowners (including the Crawleys) received compensation for leasing their subsurface mineral rights to petroleum companies, and fracking is purported to lift the economies of struggling areas where factories have closed. But what I found so striking about the Crawleys was that they insisted they were not against fracking, even after they came out losers in the fracking lottery.
Part of their reasoning was that fracking benefited others, like their neighbor whose family farm was no longer a millstone to unload now that it was bringing in gas royalties, or the friend who was laid off but found a better-paying job driving a water truck for the oil and gas industry. In other words, it mattered to the Crawleys that their neighbors supported fracking and benefited from it. They feared that “raising a stink” about their problem might invite greater oversight of the industry that would ultimately make it harder for others in the community to profit from fracking.
And then there are the fractivists themselves. The Crawleys were hardly alone in viewing those opposed to fracking as “outsiders” to the community who, in the words of Representative Everett, “have no clue about rural values.” The disruptive tactics of some anti-fracking groups, along with their message of greater government regulation over personal land-use decisions, violated the small-town community norms that mattered a lot to people like the Crawleys: civility, civic association, self-reliance and land sovereignty. Viewed in this light, the Crawleys’ continued public support of fracking, and their dismissal of environmentalists, was a way of showing solidarity with the community and protecting its ostensibly rural way of life.
The Crawleys did eventually talk to a lawyer from an environmental nonprofit; the firm he recommended helped them quietly reach a settlement. They used some of the money to build a cozy new den, complete with ceiling beams salvaged from Mr. Crawley’s great-grandfather’s barn and a hearth made from fieldstones they collected. Mrs. Crawley splurged on a Kawasaki Mule 4010 off-road vehicle; her husband got a cherry red Ford Mustang. Prudently, they also purchased burial plots.
But the vent over their water well, and the methane detectors in their house, are still there. Without explaining why, in 2016 the D.E.P. rescinded the multimillion-dollar fine it levied against the energy company even though the Crawleys’ faucet — and Sugar Run — still gurgles with methane.
Of the six neighbors on Green Valley Road who settled with the petroleum company, only the Crawleys remain. Mr. Finkler died of cancer. But the rest abandoned their homes and moved far away.
When I visited with the Crawleys one last time before my book was published this past spring, Mrs. Crawley said they were happy with the settlement, but added: “It’s weird. All of our friends are gone.” Despite the Crawleys’ best efforts, they lost the one thing they cherished more than clean water: their community.
Did Range Resource’s drilling of the Harman Lewis Unit actually cause methane migration into the Crawley’s well? Who knows. Possibly. We tend to believe the Crawleys. The new information we learn from the NYT article is that Range Resources privately settled with the Crawleys.
We have admiration and respect for the Crawleys. They didn’t turn into fractivists–they simply wanted the driller (Range Resources) to fix something that didn’t exist before the fracked well was drilled. And they didn’t seek to drag their entire community, and the fracking industry, through the mud. Seems to us like they’re the kind of neighbors we’d like to have.
So, while the author tried to turn the Crawley’s story into an anti-fracking missive, we think it backfired.
Editor’s Note: I think so, too. There is nothing quite so annoying as a Manhattanite oozing condescension for anyone west of the Hudson. It’s quite fascinating, also, how Jerolmack inherently grasped this at some level based on his conversations with the refreshingly honest Tom Crawley. Yet, he couldn’t bring himself to abandon his political correctness, to avoid slanting the story or to quit using terms such as “losers” to describe residents. He only viewed Tom Crawley as a subject to be studied in a “What’s the Matter with Kansas” sort of analysis of why others did not share his self-evidently superior values. It reeks, just like this video Jerolmack made of himself about what else but his expresso machine and what he considers “just mean.”
How much more Manhattanite can you get?
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