Farmer Fights for Her Land as Shell Begins Fracking Amidst Hundreds of Abandoned Oil Wells
Maggie Henry's eyes lit up when she handed me a cherry tomato plucked from the mat of tomato plants carpeting her greenhouse and said, “Now tell me that's not the best tomato in the world!” Henry is passionate about the food she grows and the land where it comes from. She has been raising chickens and pigs, and a half acre of vegetables on her farm near New Castle, PA for the last 10 years. Before that her husband Dale ran a small dairy operation, which had been passed down from his father and grandfather.
However, some of her enthusiasm has recently dwindled and weeds have taken over some of her garden. The weeds got away from her this summer because she has been busy fighting the permit for an unconventional gas well going in on a neighbor's property.
Henry's crusade started when she learned last winter that oil giant Shell had received a permit to drill one of its first fracking gas wells 4,000 feet from her property line. Around the same time, she also learned that Shell held a lease on her land which her mother-in-law, who was on the deed for the property at the time, had signed six years ago without her or her husband's knowledge or consent. With a well permit so close and Henry's land leased, Shell could drill a well under her farm. Suddenly, Henry's life was turned upside down.
Fracking, she knows, poses risks, but Henry has an additional cause for concern—her farm is littered with abandoned, unplugged oil wells from a drilling boom at the turn of the last century. Old wells can act as a pathway through which gas and fluids from the fracking process or from shallow layers above, could migrate during new drilling activity.
Historical maps show at least 10 abandoned conventional wells on Henry's property, only two of which she can locate. The surrounding area is dotted with as many as 1,500 old wells drilled in what was known as the Bessemer Oil Pool.
This is the legacy of a century and a half of oil and gas extraction in Pennsylvania, where the first commercial oil well in the world was drilled in 1859. By conservative estimates there are at least 200,000 abandoned oil and gas wells in the state, many of which have been forgotten, overgrown or plowed under, and lie hidden in the same areas where companies like Shell are now fracking.
In the spring Henry filed an objection to the permit with the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board and found attorneys at the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Pittsburgh to take her case. Hydro-geologist Daniel Fisher was hired by Henry's attorneys to assess the risks posed by the old wells. “Each of these abandoned wells is a potentially direct pathway or conduit to the surface should any gas or fluids migrate upward from the wells during or after fracking,” Fisher's report concluded.
Methane leaks from gas wells have been responsible for numerous explosions in or near residences in Pennsylvania in recent years. Migrating gas and fluids also threaten groundwater supplies, on which Henry and her animals depend for their drinking water. Earlier this year a major gas leak in Tioga County, PA, caused by Shell's own drilling operations, produced a 30 foot geyser of methane and water, which spewed from an unplugged well and forced several families to evacuate.
Fisher's report, presented to the Environmental Hearing Board, was unequivocal, “PADEP [Department of Environmental Protection] should not have approved and issued the permit.” Yet, weeks before the board was set to make a decision, Henry's attorneys capitulated and negotiated an out-of-court settlement with Shell. Henry believes that the law clinic, fearing a decision in Shell's favor, sought the settlement to preserve their court record.
“They basically just bailed on me. It was, you know, 'Sign this, you don't have a choice.'” Feeling coerced by her lawyers, Henry agreed. She says she received no money in the deal and that Shell has not followed through on other parts of the agreement, but because of a non-disclosure clause, she cannot discuss the details.
Construction at the well site began in August and Shell's drilling rig, visible above the belt of trees at Henry's property line, has now been operating for more than a month. Once drilling is finished, Shell will begin fracking, pumping millions of gallons of water, sand and toxic chemicals underground to release natural gas from the deep shale layer.
The Henrys have watched their farming community decline over thelast 20 years with the consolidation of the dairy industry. Like them, most of their neighbors have been forced to quit the business and sell their herds. But with their small, organic operation, the Henrys have managed to keep the farm alive. Fracking, they fear, could be the last straw.
Abandoned by her attorneys and with no other legal recourse, Henry is inviting activists from the region to her farm to prepare for direct action. From Nov. 10-12, the Pittsburgh-based Shadbush Environmental Justice Collective will host the Shalefield Justice Action Camp, a three-day crash course training in the planning, strategy, and tactics behind civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action, as well as a host of other workshops about industry watchdogging and grassroots organizing.
The camp is intended to prepare for future actions in Henry's area and throughout the region. All over Pennsylvania, communities are being sickened and displaced by the gas industry and are finding no relief through legal or political channels. Organizers hope to empower people with the skills to stand up to the industry through direct action, like so many other activists in the climate movement have this year.
Henry is excited for the camp, but not under any illusions, “I'd like to think there was hope that this would all work out ... but I don't know how naïve that is.” Still, she says, she's found support and solidarity from other activists and draws parallels to the landowners in Texas fighting the Keystone XL pipeline. “I just felt alone for so long. It's good not to feel alone."
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.