Four years ago, as the economy was entering a devastating recession, swaths of rural Pennsylvania were booming. Energy companies were using hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, to tap the vast natural gas reserves of the Marcellus Shale underlying much of the Keystone State. In Wayne County, these corporations offered struggling farmers lucrative leases for mineral rights. “Land here became a whole different asset class,” says Tim Meagher, a real estate broker whose family settled in the area in the 1840s.
Today there is no drilling in Wayne County. The Delaware River Basin Commission, a regional regulatory agency, has declared a moratorium while it studies the environmental impact. Gas companies have invoked force majeure clauses to put their contracts with property owners on hold. Investors who bought farmland are stuck, and farmers who expected to retire on gas royalties are back to eking out a living from agriculture. Meanwhile, fracking opponents are brandishing the example of Wayne County as they fight shale energy exploration across the country.
The number of drilling permits issued in Pennsylvania soared from 122 in 2007 to 3,337 in 2011, according to the Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research at Penn State University. Much of the activity was concentrated in the western and central parts of the state, which have a history of energy exploration and geology conducive to gas production. As the price of gas climbed, drillers looking for fresh land started eyeing the verdant, rolling pastures of Wayne County in the northeastern part of the state. Companies such as Hess (HES), Chesapeake Energy (CHK), and Cabot Oil & Gas (COG) dispatched “land men” to go door to door to persuade homeowners to sign mineral leases. Farmers were getting $250 to more than $3,000 an acre to allow drilling on their property, says Meagher. Land that sold for $2,000 to $3,000 an acre in 2004 was going for as much as $10,000 an acre by 2009. Meagher says he often got calls from prospective investors in Manhattan, Boston, and beyond. To encourage more, he put property ads in the New York Post, New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. “I wanted to get my clients here the highest possible bid,” he says.
By the summer of 2009, a joint venture of Hess and Newfield Exploration had secured leases for 80,000 acres with the Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance, a group of 1,500 landowners formed to negotiate with the gas companies. “It’s the biggest thing ever happened around here, in my lifetime at least,” says Alliance member Bob Rutledge, a dairy and beef farmer whose family has been in Wayne for 170 years. “People here struggle. The economy here sucks when it’s good. The farms are dying.” Spokesmen for Hess, Chesapeake, Cabot, and Newfield declined to comment.
Honesdale, the county seat, last saw a boom like this in the 1820s, when it was the starting point for the new Delaware & Hudson Canal. In March 2009, Leonard Schwartz, recently retired as chief executive officer of chemical company Aceto, reopened Honesdale’s 182-year-old Hotel Wayne. He gutted and redecorated its rooms and upgraded its restaurant and bar to accommodate out-of-town speculators and energy company officials with expense accounts. “The gas companies were giving out money,” says Schwartz. “People were buying tractors, eating out. You felt it.”
As fracking fever spread, opposition to gas exploitation was building. In the spring of 2008, a gas company offered Josh Fox’s family almost $100,000 to drill on its Wayne County property, inspiring Fox, a filmmaker, to make the anti-fracking documentary Gasland. The Oscar-nominated film, which shows water from a faucet catching fire, was shown on HBO (TWX) and helped foment broader opposition to fracking. Fox and an alliance of conservation groups called on the Delaware River Basin Commission to ban the practice in Wayne County. They argued that the drilling technology, which involves injecting high-pressure jets of water and chemicals into underground rock formations, would pollute the river’s 14,000-square-mile basin, a source of drinking water for 15 million people.
In May 2009 the commission, which includes the governors of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and New York as well as a representative from the Army Corps of Engineers, declared that gas companies wanting to drill in Wayne County would need a permit from the DRBC as well as from the state of Pennsylvania. Land men started pulling out of Wayne, according to local townspeople. A year later the commission announced that it would not issue permits and would study the impact of fracking.
The decision caught farmers and investors off guard. “I had never even heard of this out-of-state commission,” says Jim Stracka, a contractor from Scranton, Pa., who joined with two New Jersey businessmen to form a company called Gasaholics to invest in Wayne County. In 2008, Gasaholics paid $900,000 in cash for a 96-acre farm in northeastern Wayne. Stracka says he expected to lease his mineral rights for at least $3,000 an acre and hoped a producing well might generate as much as $50,000 a day in royalties. “We went on that premise,” he says. “Then, the moratorium comes out of left field and the leases stop. Now we’re just sitting on it.” The property remains vacant. A local farmer stops by on occasion to cut the land’s overgrowth for hay.
Rutledge fared better. Hess-Newbridge paid him $300,000 for the right to drill on his farm. Even so, he’s bitter at the prospect of not receiving royalties. He says his farm can’t compete with corporate operations, and that he’s been selling timber from his land, as well as portions of a century-old stone wall. “The DRBC,” he says, “isn’t writing me a check. They’re just basically saying ‘screw you.’”
Drilling is not officially dead in Wayne County. In February 2011 the DRBC held 18 hours of public hearings at three locations to take testimony on draft regulations and received 69,000 submissions during a two-month public comment period, according to spokesmen Clarke Rupert and Kate O’Hara. The commission scheduled a hearing for Nov. 21, 2011. Fox showed up with 2,000 protesters, but the meeting was canceled and has yet to be rescheduled. A statement on the commission’s website says that as of May the commissioners are “convening meetings with their respective technical staff” as they consider rules for drilling.
As fracking continues in most of Pennsylvania, Wayne County residents are recognizing that public works improvements tied to a gas boom aren’t going to happen. “We expected better roads,” says Myron Uretsky, a retired New York University professor who owns a house in the town of Damascus, Pa. “We have no fire hydrants—the gas companies were going to put them in.”
While many residents blame Fox for their troubles, he says they were naive to think drilling would ever be allowed in such an environmentally critical area. He faults the gas companies for dangling money in front of farmers without warning them of the potential problems. “It was all sweetness and light,” he says. “‘You’ll make so much money.’ That’s exploitation, not prosperity. This was a bubble.”