Citizen Groups Play Important Role in Protecting Landowner Rights in Shale Plays

by Paul Feezel, Carroll Concerned Citizens

Carrollton OH: While some industry funded groups seek to discredit the work of local citizen groups and their roles in the communities where shale gas development occurs, the reality is these groups have become a critical part of information exchange and ultimately industry accountability. Whether a formalized non-profit, a land-owner collaborative, or an informal group, citizen members realize that industry information provides only one side of the story…a corporate profit side.

Drillers and industry associations leverage professional marketers and industry funded non-profits to carefully craft messages that accentuate drilling’s financial upside potential while minimizing its downside risks to the environment, land values and local quality-of-life. Their hope is that landowners remain disconnected and act only as individuals rather than groups. This helps them hold down leasing costs, keep problems under wraps, and unfortunately support a practice of pitting neighbor against neighbor for corporate gain.

Landowners who understand that shale plays involve David and Goliath sized power plays also understand they can increase their power when they work together. Early leasing examples in the Carroll County area include collaboratives like ALOV and SURE who substantially improved landowner protections and economic terms over standard shale gas leases. Now that the boom has subsided, these same groups are moving to support landowners in resolving grievances related to royalty payments, pipeline easements, noise complaints, and other lease terms not being followed by drillers.

Most might think that local or state officials would be working to enforce lease terms and correlate complaints to find patterns worthy regulatory involvement, but unfortunately neither tends to be the case. ODNR (the State agency charged with oversight of all shale gas activities) does not engage in any lease disputes as those are considered “business relationships.” Unfortunately, their primary approach to environmental, operational, or quality-of-life complaints entails routing landowers back to drillers to “work it out” on a case by case basis. If a landowner is fortunate enough to get some relief, it often comes with a non-disclosure agreement that prevents landowners from sharing the problem or the resolution with neighbors or even the State.

Non-disclosures and the lack of consolidated reporting has become a major barrier to researchers’ ability to do long-term studies of the risks of shale gas drilling. Furthermore, Ohio and most other states do not perform proactive testing of water and air on a widespread and ongoing basis. ODNR claims they have insufficient funding to provide that level of proactive monitoring, but at the same time refuses to raise fees charged to the industry--the sole source of funding for their agency. Finally, one would think that if the industry had no concerns about the public disclosure of widespread and going testing, they would fund independent research and publish results in respected, peer-reviewed journals.

Unfortunately, history has shown all too often that the “safe practices of today” become the industrial cleanups of tomorrow. Lack of public data for water and air quality throughout shale play lifecycles (reportedly up to 100 years) leaves researchers and landowners left to fend for themselves. Local non-profits like Carroll Concerned Citizens (CCC) continue to support such efforts by educating landowners on testing best practices, encouraging them to share their results with neighbors and/or researchers, and providing academic researchers with an opportunity to directly solicit local citizen research participation.

While CCC has not funded academic studies, it does support citizen-science testing through its Water Sentinels program. This volunteer-led program has gathered hundreds of water quality results from dozens of sites around Carroll County. Data are cataloged in a centralized database that can be compared with other samples from around the State.

So whether it is a local non-profit, a landowner collaborative, or just a couple of neighbors, a line from the character Dumbledore in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter says it quite well, “We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.”
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