By CLIFFORD KRAUSS and TOM ZELLER Jr.
Published: November 6, 2010
IN the sparsely populated pastures of De Soto Parish in Louisiana, the ability to extract gas from shale — which can involve a process known as fracking — has been welcomed as an economic windfall. Some residents call it a gift from God.
Mark Ovaska for The New York Times
Add to Portfolio
Michael Stravato for The New York Times
But 1,400 miles to the north, in Susquehanna County in Pennsylvania, shale gas development has divided neighbors, spurred lawsuits and sown deep mistrust. Along Grove Avenue in Montrose, the county seat, a billboard looms overhead, advertising the services of a personal-injury law firm. “HURT by DRILLING?” it asks.
Natural gas currently satisfies nearly a quarter of the nation’s power needs. And with vast methane reserves now available in previously inaccessible layers of shale deep underground, its position as a cornerstone of the domestic energy supply may well be secured for decades — if the public supports it.
Support for drilling has proved fairly easy in many states, including Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas. But it has met with major resistance in the Northeast. In Pennsylvania, lawsuits over drinking water and other potential environmental issues are driving up production costs on what is known as the Marcellus Shale, and the governor recently ordered a moratorium on new drilling permits in state forests.
Jerry Dugas, a veteran driller originally from Louisiana, is now a well superintendent for Cabot Oil and Gas in Pennsylvania. “They have been drilling oil and gas wells in the South for the last 100 years,” he says. “Everyone there is accustomed to seeing all of this stuff and they understand what’s going on, so it’s nothing new. That’s the environment I grew up in.”
“Once I came up here,” he adds, “it became real clear to me real quick that this is a whole other animal.”
The differences between De Soto and Susquehanna, both historically poor locales that are now rich fountains ofnatural gas, arise from a mixture of culture, geography and history. Understanding those differences may prove nearly as important as geology in determining how much gas will ultimately be produced — and at what cost.
BILL WILLIAMSON, a retired telephone factory worker, relaxes in a rocking chair on the porch of his farmhouse in Stonewall, a town in north-central De Soto Parish. The town sits 10,000 to 13,000 feet above a rich underground gas deposit known as the Haynesville Shale.
A gas rig operated by Encana, the Canadian gas giant, was busy drilling just beyond Mr. Williamson’s front yard.
“God made everything,” he says, reflecting on the rig. “He made the minerals in the ground and the trees on top of the ground, and he put them there for a purpose. It’s in our best interest to use the resources.”
Mr. Williamson and his wife, Nancy, a retired nurse, live on 34 acres of mostly grazing land. An air horn blows loudly at the nearby gas rig. But the Williamsons, who, like most of their neighbors, earn tidy incomes from gas drillers’ leasing their land, don’t seem to notice.
Oil and gas booms — and subsequent busts — have been common in De Soto for much of the last 100 years, and the economy has struggled since cotton farming gave way to dairy farming, which then gave way to logging and paper mills.
By the 2000s, De Soto, with a population of about 28,000, was one of the poorest parishes in the state.
Then came the shale.
“People went to bed one night poor and woke up the next day rich, enabled to buy a Cadillac and pay cash,” said Mayor Curtis McCoy of Mansfield, the parish seat. “It’s kind of like the show ‘The Beverly Hillbillies.’ ”
Farmers who once lived check to check are now extremely comfortable, if not downright wealthy. New cars, recreational vehicles and trailers are parked in nearly every driveway. Vinyl siding has been applied to weather-beaten cottages and clapboard houses.
Homeowners have typically earned signing bonuses of $350 to as much as $30,000 an acre from the gas companies, as well as royalties that can last for decades. Many earned additional hefty checks for giving right of way to piping companies.