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S. Thomas Bond: Real property in shale land

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A lot of land is used for shale drilling, perhaps 14 to 18 acres per well pad. Go to Google Earth and "fly around over" Doddridge or Wetzel counties at about 2,500 feet. You can now see the first several score of thousands planned.

The typical Marcellus well is drilled on a pad of some three to five acres, requires an access road wide enough to allow two heavy trucks to pass, and a pipeline right of way for connecting to a transmission line. The transmission line requires a right of way in addition to the well land and frequent stations for shipping the gas and removal of natural gas liquids. Then there are the injection wells for waste fluids, often far from the producing wells. How does this affect the value of property in the vicinity of the operations?

Obviously, there is a loss of production from the farmland or timberland involved, and nearby dwellings and livestock housing is negatively impacted. Agriculture on adjacent land is also impacted, both animals and plants, by various kinds of pollutants, including dust on crops. Timber cannot grow on the access, pads or pipeline areas for the life of the operation, and requires 70 years or more after production activity for a crop of trees to grow. Normally, by selective cutting, a tree crop can be cut every 35 years.

Being near a shale well can be devastating for someone who owns a house on a lot, or a small tract, or has the well drilled in close proximity to his/her home, regardless of water contamination. This is true when the well is being drilled and afterward, because of the traffic to the site.

You can find claims that property values go up after wells have been drilled. This may be true in some cases because royalty is being used to expand a property when someone expects to continue farming in the future. Or it may reflect the possibility for more intense use in the drilling area, such as man-camps, accessory services and so forth that will disappear when the drilling era is over. It is not because people want to move near shale wells. The original productivity of the land is lost, some of it to be regained with proper renovation, but some forever. This is an infinite series of annual reduction in land services. Anyone familiar with past extraction realizes the history of recovery from previous mineral exploitation is abominable.

A common attitude is expressed by the following statement: "Yes, perhaps the surface has become less valuable but the increased sub-surface value more than makes up for it. I'm now leased and one day my surface land might become unsightly. Maybe I'll lose some timber. Maybe I'll have to move my honeybees elsewhere. And for sure, the deer hunting will probably be not as good, possibly even non-existent if a well is drilled. But who cares! I would be pocketing between $100,000 and $250,000 per year in royalties. Overall, my quality of life would be vastly improved."

 Land services are a continuing gift to the community of people living at any time and on into the future. This fellow has put himself above those who follow. Conservation is of no value to him. This mindset figures largely in what is wrong in assessing the effects of shale drilling. People owning land, houses or having a business dependent on the land lose that now. Hunting and fishing, quiet enjoyment of the countryside, scenic value, and certain roads are gone too. The royalty money the boom brings lasts briefly. Yield, and thus royalty from shale wells, drops in half in three or four years.

Utilizing land services is unlike most businesses, which come and go. Someone must continue to extract materials based on organic life generation after generation. We humans are organic and need that input. There is no inorganic food, or way to get clean air, water and remove carbon dioxide from the air but by organic means. The farmer, the fisherman, the timber man and the hunter live for a little while, but the business goes on. Their yields must be protected.

Civilization, that is, a life where some people can do work other than acquire food day after day, has been around eight or ten thousand years. It can go on for a very long time, if planned for. There is no reason to discount the future value of land services, particularly on a planet where many people do not have a decent life now, and where the population is gong to grow by nearly one-third in 30 years -- about the time the gas will be fading away.

We live on a space ship, as the astronauts tell us, not the center of a flat earth with great unknowns beyond what we now use. Space is very inhospitable to life. For us there is no other livable place but our planet, and that surface is all used. We must not destroy it for a few decades gain.

Bond, of Jane Lew, is a retired teacher with a Ph. D. in inorganic chemistry. He is a member of the Guardians of the West Fork and the Monongahela Area Watersheds Compact.






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