By JON HURDLE
March 1, 2013, 1:42 pm
In its ongoing campaign to win over opponents of hydraulic fracturing, the natural gas industry has succeeded in persuading the owner of a historic Pennsylvania farm to allow gas to be extracted from beneath her property. The owner, Denise Dennis, initially rejected an approach from Cabot Oil and Gas to lease part of her 153-acre farm in gas-rich Susquehanna County in northeastern Pennsylvania. But late last year she changed her mind and signed a lease that allows the company to drill horizontally below her land without sinking any wells within its boundaries.
Ms. Dennis is a direct descendant of Prince Perkins, a free black veteran of the Revolutionary War who came to Pennsylvania from Connecticut and bought the farm in 1793, beginning a continuous record of family ownership that is now in its eighth generation. Part of that legacy is a trove of historic and archaeological materials, including rare records from the Revolutionary and Civil wars as well as evidence that the farm was a stop on the Underground Railroad for slaves fleeing Southern states.
Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust
Its 19th-century farmhouse, of major cultural and historical importance, needs repairs that can now be financed with the money from the lease and from royalties that are expected to flow from deposits of gas within the Marcellus Shale, about a mile below the surface.
“I made the best decision I could for my property,” said Ms. Dennis, who has also set up a charitable land trust to restore the farm. “We couldn’t move forward without the money.” She spoke after making a presentation earlier this week about the farm’s history at the African American Museum in Philadelphia.
Ms. Dennis declined to disclose the terms of her agreement with Cabot.
Still, she estimated that lease and royalty payments will “take us a long” way to the $20 million to $25 million that she estimates will be needed to renovate the farm house and build an interpretive center for visitors. “No way is it going to cover everything,” she added, and she is continuing her fund-raising efforts for the project.
Fracking, which involves injecting vast amounts of chemical-laced water into shale formations under enormous pressure to unlock gas, remains controversial in the region. Philadelphia’s City Council has held hearings on whether public water supplies could be contaminated by gas drilling in Pennsylvania.
Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust caretaker John Arnone carries a mailbox he found on the property as they walk by the Dennis family farmhouse during a visit by Denise Dennis, right. Dennis, a one-time anti-drilling activist has leased the land to a gas company, saying it’s better wotk work with the industry than to fight it.
In an interview, Ms. Dennis confirmed that she had criticized the gas industry in an “uncharacteristically outspoken” speech in 2010 to the City Council. But then, she said, she did more research that led her to a more “balanced view” of the pros and cons of the region’s natural gas boom, which has been enabled by the development of the hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technology.
Critics contend that the gas extraction technique risks contaminating underground drinking water sources with toxic chemicals that can cause cancer and other illnesses. The gas companies counter that there is no evidence of water contamination from fracking and that the chemicals are shielded from aquifers by steel and concrete drill casings before being released thousands of feet below drinking water sources.
Ms. Dennis said she initially rejected Cabot’s offer after learning about the gas industry’s impact on nearby Dimock, Pa.. which became a focus of national attention when some of its residents complained of water contamination and attributed it to drilling by Cabot.
But after further discussions with the company, including a meeting with its chief executive, Dan O. Dinges, Ms. Dennis said, she felt more comfortable with the company’s plan and decided that the gas proceeds presented the only opportunity for restoring and preserving her ancestral property.
She said she was no longer concerned that fracking might contaminate groundwater on her property. “I guess you could say that if I thought it wasn’t safe, I wouldn’t have done it,” Ms. Dennis said. “I really believe that our natural spring is going to be perfectly safe, and I mean that with all my heart.”
Cabot, a sponsor of Tuesday night’s museum event, sees its association with Ms. Dennis as a sign of its commitment to Susquehanna County, where it expects to be producing natural gas for at least the next 30 years, said George Stark, a company spokesman.
Mr. Stark said Cabot had so far invested $2 billion in the county in recognition of its exceptionally rich gas reserves. Fifteen of Pennsylvania’s 20 most productive wells in 2012 were Cabot wells in Susquehanna County, he said.
Although the company will now be able to extract gas from under the Dennis Farm, its activities will not disturb the historic property itself, he said.