Former anti-shale Pennsylvania landowner signs deal with driller

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By Andrew Maykuth

Two years ago, Denise Dennis delivered a dramatic denunciation of Marcellus Shale natural gas development at a Philadelphia City Council hearing.

She equated drilling to the tobacco industry, and said "Pennsylvanians are the lab rats" for a massive shale gas experiment.

The Philadelphia resident had a powerful story -- her family owned a historic 153-acre farm in Susquehanna County where her ancestors were among the first freed African-Americans to settle in Pennsylvania just after the Revolutionary War. She became a potent symbol in the shale gas wars.

"The process for extracting natural gas from shale is as dirty as coal mining," she testified to thunderous applause at the 2010 council meeting.

But Ms. Dennis' fervor has subsided in the past two years, undone by the financial need of preserving her family's deteriorating historic farm, and by the salesmanship of the Cabot Oil & Gas Corp.

Earlier this month, she signed a lease allowing the Houston company to extract the shale gas beneath her family's farm, which the National Trust for Historic Preservation has called a "rare and highly significant African-American cultural landscape."

"I decided to stop demonizing the industry and to start negotiating with individuals," Ms. Dennis said. "I had to be realistic."

The reality was that most of the surrounding landowners had leased their mineral rights, and gas drilling was going to proceed with or without the Dennis farm.

"We were an island in a sea of leased land," she said. "As I saw it, the drilling companies were now my neighbors, and it was better to get along with them than to be antagonistic."

The lease preserves the Dennis farm by prohibiting Cabot from disturbing the farm's surface. The company can only extract gas by boring horizontally under the Dennis farm from wells drilled on neighboring land.

Ms. Dennis did not disclose the financial terms. But in 2010, she said that gas drillers had offered more than $800,000 for the right to drill. The landowner also receives royalty payments from any gas produced from the property.

The proceeds from the lease will benefit the Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust, the organization set up to preserve the farm.

"I am trying to do what's best for the property," she said.

The first order of business will be to stabilize the farmhouse, a two-story, timber-framed Cape Cod dwelling built in 1859, which has been unoccupied for more than two decades and is collapsing.

The farm in Brooklyn Township, now largely overgrown, was pioneered by Ms. Dennis' great-great-great-great-grandfather, Prince Perkins, a black Revolutionary War veteran who moved his family from Connecticut to Northeastern Pennsylvania in 1793. The homestead and the artifacts unearthed there tell a story of free African-Americans who were integrated in a largely white community 70 years before emancipation.

Cabot spokesman George Stark said the company would have been able to develop its surrounding leases without signing up the Dennis farm. But by securing the Dennis lease, Cabot now has the rights under a larger contiguous area, and it can more efficiently exploit the mile-deep Marcellus.

Mr. Stark said the company's chief executive, Dan O. Dinges, became aware of the Dennis farm's history and met personally with Ms. Dennis in 2011 to assure her the company took her concerns seriously. Cabot also took her on a helicopter tour of its Susquehanna County operations so she could get a sense of its scale.

"We were able to walk her through our process, the precautions we take," Mr. Stark said. "It was an opportunity to dispel some myths and rumors."

Ms. Dennis is aware that some of her former allies will regard her decision as a betrayal.

"Yes, I was vehement," she said. "But where did that get me? And what would not signing have achieved?"

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