Sullivan County, and your Pennsylvania neighbors along the Delaware, brace yourselves. The natural gas rush is on, and your lives will forever change.
Prospectors from national energy companies hoping to tap a fertile crescent of gas that stretches from Ohio to the Delaware River are knocking on doors, hoping to secure leases to drill on private property.
Supporters of the gas rush, like farmer Bill Graby of Callicoon, see opportunity beneath the lush fields of quiet towns like Fremont, Cochecton and Delaware.
Gas drilling will be a bonanza bigger than long-awaited casinos, supporters say. Workers in a county with one of the region’s highest unemployment rates will find new jobs. Hotels, restaurants and gas stations will be jammed.
"It’ll make this area bigger than Texas," says Graby.
Critics say the drilling could do more harm than the massive proposed power line, New York Regional Interconnect, that would slice through much of the same Sullivan area.
Opponents fear the prospecting will usher in a parade of howling, road-crushing machinery that will pollute the water and scar the region’s natural beauty.
"It has the potential to change the county more than the automobile," says Bruce Ferguson of Callicoon Center, where it’s so quiet you can hear a propane tank hiss.
He’s formed Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy, which wants stringent regulations and planning to protect the green land, mountain air and clean water that make Sullivan a haven for tourists and second-home owners.
Sullivan County, much of Pennsylvania and the tip of western Orange County are sitting on the end of an underground formation that has two times as much natural gas — up to 50 trillion cubic feet — as America produces in a year. Drilling has already begun in western New York, western Pennsylvania and even at one site, a few miles from Honesdale, in Wayne County, Pa.
Leasing agents called land men are cutting deals and stockpiling land at prices up to $2,500 per acre. If gas is found in the formation called Marcellus Shale, royalties could soar to as much as $20,000 per month.
With stakes that high, a line has already been drawn in the shale.
Is gas the "golden egg?"
Dairy farmers like Graby, who are struggling to cope with fuel and feed prices that have doubled in two years, say the influx of gas money will help save their farms and ultimately keep open spaces open.
Graby is co-chairman, along with activist Noel Van Swol, of the Sullivan-Delaware Property Owners Association, a group of about 500 land owners of some 60,000 acres angling to negotiate the best price for drilling rights — a price he estimates at $150 million.
"Unless you want all the land to end up in the hands of the wealthy, or go for back taxes to the county or see it developed, this is the way to go," says Tom Shepstone, a former planning adviser for the Town of Bethel.
He’s leased 30 acres of his land just next to Sullivan in Damascus, Pa., for about $2,000 an acre, helped organize other land owners and written environmental protections into the leases.
But those who fear the impacts of drilling say that gas is the golden egg that could destroy the goose.
New roads will be carved into green fields and forests. Drills will bore through miles of rock day and night. Second-home owners — the backbone of growing hamlets like Callicoon, Narrowsburg, Jeffersonville and Barryville — will be scared away.
Critics want regulations and protections.
In for the long haul
The Energy Act of 2005 does not require companies to disclose what chemicals are used in the drilling process called "fracking" — shattering the shale horizontally to free the gas. It’s that technology that finally allows drilling so deep.
Many fear that ground and well water will be contaminated with drilling chemicals and the ground’s natural toxins. This is especially worrisome since all of the gas sits so close to — and perhaps beneath — the Delaware River and the New York City drinking water supply.
And because round-the-clock drilling can hit 100 decibels — as loud as a jet plane, says Wes Gillingham of the Catskill Mountainkeeper environmental group — residents without wells may suffer.
"This is America and you can do what you want with your land," he says. "But it’s our job to make sure we protect that land."
In fact, the gas companies have appeared so quickly that local officials have been slow to do anything except hold forums.
There, residents from as far away as Colorado and Wyoming warn of undrinkable water, polluted air and sleepless nights — claims that Graby’s co-chair, Van Swol, dismisses as "hysteria."
While this gas rush might be new to Sullivan, drilling companies are planning for the long haul.
"Once we drill, we expect to be in a location for many decades," says Jim Gipson, a spokesman for Chesapeake Energy, one of the companies soliciting leases in Sullivan. "We come with the intention of being a long-term, positive influence."
This is why Sullivan County Planning Commissioner Bill Pammer and others want the gas rush to slow down. They want energy companies to pay towns up front for impacts on roads, land, air and water.
The Delaware River towns of Highland, Tusten and Cochecton even voted to seek gas-drilling moratoriums, which likely won’t stand up in court, to delay the inevitable.
But while those who favor drilling dismiss environmental concerns, hardly anyone disagrees with this:
"They’re coming," says Pammer.