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Welcome to the gas drilling business, Partner

— like it or not!

By Irving Wesley Hall
(published Oct. 8, 2012 in The Evening Sun, Norwich, N.Y.)

Your longtime Oxford neighbor and friend Brad Bryant signed a gas lease with giant Chesapeake Energy and the state just approved a permit for Chesapeake to start drilling horizontally or "fracking". You receive a certified letter. They've decided to drill under your land too--including your house and your wife's small day care center.

You live off the land and hate gas drilling. Brad's your friend! A fishing buddy! You went to high school together! How could he do such an un-neighborly thing?

The answer is simple. New York State's compulsory integration law dictates that both Brad and you become junior partners with Chesapeake, the boss who calls the shots. Chesapeake's drilling permit staked out a 640 square acre "spacing unit". As long as 60 percent of that "spacing unit" is on Brad's land, the company can legally seize the gas under an additional 40 percent of adjacent acreage--wherever it chooses.

Brad has no say over where Chesapeake draws its mile-square unit or where it sinks its wells, and you have no right to refuse access to the land beneath your home, water well or dairy pasture.


Welcome to compulsory integration. Welcome to the gas drilling business, partner! That's right. The government can force you into partnership with a business whose practices violate your basic values, harm your economic interests, pit neighbor against neighbor and destroy your community.

How could this happen in America to you, a Chenango County property owner?

The explanation is a perverse interpretation of the principle of eminent domain thanks to $4.5 million spent on lobbying in New York State over the last few years by corporations eager to grab the gas under your land—with or without your consent.

Ordinarily we think eminent domain is when the state seizes private property for public use. That was before the big gas companies introduced Albany legislators to the idea of compulsory integration. It empowers the state to seize your property and hand it over to a private gas corporation.

It's unlikely you would voluntarily go into business with a firm like Chesapeake. According to its own description:

"Natural gas and oil operations are subject to many risks, including well blowouts, cratering and explosions, pipe failures, fires, formations with abnormal pressures, uncontrollable flows of oil, natural gas, brine or well fluids, and other environmental hazards and risks."

Chesapeake Appalachia, a subsidiary of Chesapeake Energy, spent more than $1.2 million on lobbying in 2010 alone. They have many leases in Oxford—some near you--and they don't have your interests in mind.

Chesapeake's lawyer wrote the Compulsory Integration Law for New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation. Encouraged by millions of dollars in campaign contributions Albany legislators approved it.

Look at it for a minute from Chesapeake's point of view. Economically a 640-acre spacing unit makes sense. Drilling a high-tech well thousands of feet underground to mine a stratum of shale can cost ten million dollars. Hundreds of millions of gallons of water, sand and toxic chemicals are required for each of many "fracks" to break up the shale and release gas. Large, contiguous plots enable operators to drill several vertical wells and then blast out six or more mile-long horizontal tentacles creeping in all directions from each well--under the property of anyone in the way.

Get the picture? Compulsory integration means bigger profits. You and neighbor Brad don't count.

The gas companies' goal is to maximize the return on their investment by "harvesting" the gas under every square mile of Marcellus Shale under Chenango County, including your town. Oxford drilling supporters have testified before the Town Board that 68% of the land in our town is already leased and 20% belongs to landowners who are eager to lease for the right price. That's 88% of a total of 60 square miles.

If you're one of the great majority of Oxford landowners who oppose gas drilling, just visualize sixty rectangular "spacing units" covering the town like a checkerboard. These units will contain well rigs, toxic wastewater tanks, noisy compressor stations, heavy trucks and the hubs for a network of 30" diameter pipes.

What are the odds that your homestead won't fall under one of them?

Even if you don’t consent to compulsory integration you can be sued by another neighbor for damages caused by your lease-holding neighbor's drilling under your land. These damages include water contamination, air pollution, and the sickness and death of humans and animals. Your property will plummet in value. You will lose your homeowners insurance and the option of borrowing against a second mortgage.

Is large-scale industrial gas drilling consistent with your values? We will all lose the peaceful rural quality of life we love about Oxford. Gone forever will be the verdant hills and lush valleys, quiet roads, clean water and fresh air. If you value the planet, you oppose gas drilling because so-called natural gas production and consumption are a greater cause of global warming than oil or coal.

If you are a Conservative or Libertarian your values about limited government are irrelevant. Your home is no longer your castle. You forfeit your right to do what you want with your property so long as you respect your neighbor's rights.

Under compulsory integration only the gas companies' rights are respected. Read for yourself the state's "Landowner's Guide to Compulsory Integration Options" http://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/materials_minerals_pdf/guidecio.pdf

Can you imagine the conflicts that compulsory integration will cause among neighbors? That's one reason why hundreds of Oxford residents are urging our Town Board to enact a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing. The overwhelming majority of those polled support a complete ban on gas drilling in Oxford.

At its next meeting the Oxford Town Board can enact a moratorium eventually to ban this destructive activity in our town forever. Three New York State court rulings affirm the principle of Home Rule empowering your town board to ban gas drilling to protect the health, welfare and safety of its citizenry.

On Sunday October 14 at 4:00pm in the Oxford Memorial Library you are invited to a Concerned Residents of Oxford forum on compulsory integration. I have been asked to facilitate the discussion.

Only our local government can save our families and our property—not the governor and not the bureaucrats in Albany. And your town board won’t act unless you demand it—before it is too late.

So far the Oxford Town Board has refused to do anything, thus leaving our town's fate to Albany's Department of Environmental Conservation and thus making all of us vulnerable to the shameful compulsory integration law. Three of the board members have gas leases; one has two leases with Chesapeake Appalachia.

Will our lease-holding neighbors fare any better than the rest of us? Chesapeake's salesmen who knocked on their doors probably didn't warn them about the potential risks of gas drilling that the Securities and Exchange Commission requires the company to disclose to its investors:

"Our drilling operations involve risks from high pressures and from mechanical difficulties such as stuck pipes, collapsed casings and separated cables. If any of these risks occurs, we could sustain substantial losses as a result of: injury or loss of life; severe damage to or destruction of property, natural resources or equipment; pollution or other environmental damage; clean-up responsibilities; regulatory investigations and administrative, civil and criminal penalties; and injunctions resulting in limitation or suspension of operations."

Hence landowners who hold leases face risks as great as those who do not. That's why we should not consider leaseholders our enemy. The deceptive executives and wealthy investors in Chesapeake's high-rise office buildings are the common enemy of all hardworking citizens and officials in our tiny rural town.

The three Oxford Town Board members with gas leases have consciences and families. As the majority on the board they can easily insure that no town property owner ever receives a letter announcing, "Welcome to the Gas Drilling Business, Partner!"

The Oxford Town Board meets on Wednesday October 10 at 7:30 in the Bank Building across from Lafayette Park on Route 12.