Fracking debate divides New York landowners
Pete and Jack Diehl grew up in the tall clapboard house their German immigrant ancestors built in 1842, on a hillside overlooking a creek in the Catskills. Sharp-featured and lean, the brothers run dairy farms within a couple miles of each other. They own land together, and Pete’s grandson works on Jack’s farm every day after school.
But the Diehls are divided over the fate of their property — like thousands of others along the Pennsylvania border, where rich natural gas deposits underlie forests, pastures and towns. As New York prepares to lift a moratorium on new permits for hydraulic fracturing — which carries environmental risks — landowners are debating whether to lease mineral rights to extraction companies.
Pete, 67, opposes leasing his land and the property the brothers jointly own. He worries that he would lose control over his pastures to a big corporation and that the drilling process could ruin the water.
“Once you lease the land, they can do what they want on it. They can drill wherever they want,” he said. “It’s about the future. It’s the landscape. It’s the Catskills.”
Jack, 61, favors leasing, convinced that a tough contract could protect the water while delivering thousands of dollars in royalties to keep the family’s farms afloat in these difficult economic times.
“If you do a contract right, the water will be tested beforehand and the company will be liable for the water,” he said. “If anything happens to it, they will bring you water until it gets cleared up.”
Other New York residents are as polarized as the Diehls. According to a Quinnipiac poll in December, 45% oppose hydraulic fracturing and 44% favor it. A majority thinks it would create jobs, but also that it would damage the environment.
“On an issue like this, there is no gray area,” said Alice Diehl, Pete’s wife. “People are either for it for an important reason or against it for a reason they think is as important.”
The process, also called fracking, involves injecting water infused with chemicals and sand into shale formations at high pressure, which requires millions of gallons of water and produces millions of gallons of wastewater. Critics say it can lead to contamination of water wells, rivers and streams. Other risks include leaks, spills and explosions.
Both sides invoke property rights and blame each other for imperiling their future. Supporters of leasing see the potential income as a lifeline to keep their land and preserve their farms. Opponents fear they could lose their land and livelihood to environmental catastrophe.
Despite the Catskills’ beauty, decades of economic blight are forcing landowners to consider leasing. Factories have closed, once-popular resorts have withered, and the arrival of second-home owners, tourists and specialty farmers has not turned things around. Dairy farmers fight to stay afloat amid high fuel and feed costs.
Many fracking supporters accuse wealthy outsiders of seeking to squelch development.
“It’s class warfare,” said Noel van Swol, president of the Sullivan-Delaware Property Owners Assn. “They’re trust-fund babies who are throwing their weight around.”
But the dispute is more complicated. Some vacation homeowners welcome the chance to make money off their new property, while many longtime residents fight to keep the area rural.
Arguments sometimes break out at cafes and farmers’ meetings.
Wes Gillingham, 52, a lifelong resident and farmer who works for Catskill Mountainkeeper, an environmental group, says that although relations have largely stayed civil, neighbors are angry with one another — and with him.
“People I was friendly with are treating me as if I’m taking money out of their pocket,” he said.
The antagonists’ competing narratives rarely intersect.
Jack Diehl said customers at the feed store talk about a landowner in Pennsylvania’s bustling Bradford County who receives $50,000 a month in royalties.
“When it comes [time] to sign, I will sign,” even if it creates tensions with Pete, Jack Diehl said. “That’s a chance I gotta take: I’m looking at the future.”
Alice Diehl says neighbors who allow fracking could contaminate the aquifer for everyone.
“We have no control over other people’s property, but what they do affects us,” she said. “It’s as if we’d drilled ourselves. You feel like you’re on a sinking ship and you can’t fix it.”
Fracking opponents look toward Pennsylvania with dread. In Dimock, a small town about halfway between Scranton, Pa., and Binghamton, N.Y., at least 18 families’ water wells were contaminated with methane and chemicals after fracking began in the area. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is investigating, and delivering water to the families in the meantime.
Pete and Alice Diehl first heard about possible water contamination three years ago from their grandson Dan, now 16. Of all the Diehl children and grandchildren, he seems the most committed to dairy farming. He began buying his own herd when he was 8, and now has 15 cows.
Every day after school, Dan tends 80 milk cows — his Uncle Jack’s and his own Swiss Browns. In the dimness of the barn at twilight, cats run along the walls and calves sit tethered. Cows chew their cud, eyes alert. This, not college, is where Dan sees his future.
With farming paying as little as it does, Dan said, he understands why some people think leasing land for fracking may be their only hope. But he finds himself thinking like his grandfather.
“Unless they can show me that it’s permanently safe, I wouldn’t be for drilling,” he said. “I’m worried, but I keep my emotions hidden from my family. It keeps me out of trouble.”
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