Gas drilling can spark neighbor disputes

Decisions on leases divide residents


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Just ask and Paul Parker will take you on a 20-mile drive around Washington County to show you why he has issues with the natural gas industry. It takes about two hours to cover those 20 miles and fit in all of Mr. Parker's commentary, which is delivered with tour-guide gusto:

Explosions on the hill! Stupid legislators! In the industry's pocket! Open gasoline containers! Bunks filled with out-of-state workers! Shady subcontractors! Loud generators! Disclose the fracking fluids! Dead fish everywhere! And the drillers just buried them! It's a Towering Inferno! It's Godzilla! Better yet -- it's Gaszilla!

This tour already has been shared with two busloads of Pittsburgh activists; state Rep. Jesse White, who is a Cecil Democrat; and Mr. Parker's wife, Minna. Along the route, Mr. Parker's pointed finger serves as a look-over-there guide.

It has been about two years since he saw the first signs of a gas drilling boom in the Marcellus Shale formation beneath much of Pennsylvania. Washington County is the most active area for drillers in the western part of the state, with 465 permits signed for drilling in 2009 and 2010.

Mr. Parker's seven acres in Avella are "right in the middle, like the hole in the middle of a doughnut," with neighbors all around him securing hundreds of thousands of dollars through contracts that build rigs up the road from the Parkers' house.

Since touring a damaged farm two years ago, he has said "no" over and over again to the landmen who come knocking with assurances and the neighbors sent to persuade him. His refusal to put a price tag on his land has left the 73-year-old an outsider in the community where he's lived for 37 years.

The Marcellus Shale debate has entered executive boardrooms and congressional hearings, but Mr. Parker is a reminder that the drilling issue is most dramatically playing out as a neighbor-vs-neighbor affair.

And in Mr. Parker's case, it's tough seeing yourself as the enlightened one.

Approached by many

The landmen started setting off the motion-detection alarm in Mr. Parker's driveway around October 2009. Until that point, the alarm had been used to keep an eye on runaway cats.

Now it tells him when he has to go stand in his driveway to fend off another gas representative.

It starts with a neon-yellow doorknob tag from Range Resources that reads, "WE MISSED YOU!"

Later, a letter from Marc Resources of Ridgeland, Miss., lists eight reasons you might sign a lease. Among them:

• "You have a child in college and want to pay for their education."

• "You are retiring or have retired and you want to enjoy your assets while you are still young."

• "You have accumulated debt that exceeds your income and you need the cash to pay off the debt."

• "You have decided it's time for a new vehicle."

Another letter from Dale Property Services Penn, a Washington-based landman operation working with Chesapeake Energy, cites that company's success with horizontal well drilling in the Barnett Shale in Texas. Then, it invites the Parkers to come to a Pittsburgh Pirates game, where the first fans to arrive will receive a free Pirates T-shirt sponsored by Dale Property.

"I call it blood money!" said Mr. Parker.

When he starts talking about the industry, his arms move out into a massive wingspan of pointed fingers. His blue oxford shirt and white moustache lend the air of a retired statesman, but his delivery has the bombast and energy of a college freshman.

Even the salesmen paid for patience get frustrated with him.

"You're the last man to sign a lease in Hopewell Township!" the last landman said.

Mr. Parker, standing in his doorway, wasn't fazed:

"Well, that's how it's gonna be!" he said. "I'm gonna be the last man to sign. Because I'm never going to sign!"

A rig just up the road

One neighbor said he wished Paul Parker would move back to Pittsburgh already. A woman up the street told Mrs. Parker she was offered $5,000 by the gas company if she could persuade the couple to sign a lease.

When that neighbor was contacted by a reporter, she confirmed talking with the gas industry but declined comment when asked about the financial incentive for recruiting neighbors.

A Range Resources spokesman said that such incentives had "never" been offered.

Nothing would persuade Mr. Parker to sign a lease, anyway, so he's doesn't benefit from a gas-drilling rig right up the road. It stands several stories taller than the nearby silo and is visible from miles away.

PG VIDEO: DRILLING INCHES CLOSE TO HOME

Cases like Mr. Parker's have brought attention to the issue of forced pooling, which is a practice that allows companies to drill horizontally and gather gas from land they haven't leased. Gov. Tom Corbett opposes the practice, but it's a hot debate in New York, where a drilling moratorium is expected to lift soon.

Mr. Parker knows how his neighbors see him: as a left-wing nut (actually a registered Republican but "independent thinker"), as an inevitable target with his four properties and fancy job in Pittsburgh, until his retirement.

The rig up the road is on land leased by a couple who have lived in Avella for more than 40 years, Bill and Sheila Black.

They weren't friends but they were acquaintances and sometimes Mr. Black would ride up on his mower and cut Mr. Parker's grass.

Their relationship now?

"Closed."


129 leased acres

Bill and Sheila Black keep a close eye on the rig, too. But unlike Mr. Parker, they aren't looking for evidence.

"We just like to see it," said Mrs. Black. "It's educational." What they really want is a tour, but they can't trespass.

The Blacks retired about 10 years ago and always had leased the gas rights on their 129 acres for a dollar per acre -- it was enough to cover one month's mortgage. For the longest time, they "learned to be happy with what they had," said Mr. Black, wearing a Range Resources baseball cap he picked up at the county fair.

The rig that's been installed for the past two weeks made them a couple hundred thousand dollars along with royalties, but their life motto hasn't changed: "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without."

The couple lives alone on the pastoral vistas, and a slight breeze will carry the hum of the rig down to their front porch. The truck traffic going past their house is louder, of course, but the vehicles are riding on newly paved road courtesy of Range Resources.

The Blacks call it "the boulevard."

If the rig were right next door, "Would that bother me?" Mrs. Black asked. "Yeah, it probably would." But it was Range Resources that decided which part of the acreage to use for construction.

Now, when Mr. Parker drives by their house, he looks the other way -- so Mr. Black waves extra hard.


Time-consuming campaign

Outside of some strip mining protests a few decades ago, Mr. Parker hadn't ever been much of a hell raiser. He worked as an engineer Downtown before retiring with Minna, his wife of 50 years.

They live in a stately white house filled with family photos and robust bookshelves.

On the mantel above his fireplace, Mr. Parker has a sign bearing the epitaph from William Shakespeare's tombstone:

"Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare / To dig the dust enclosed here. / Blessed be the man that spares these stones, / And cursed be he that moves my bones."

Outside of lawn mowing and grandchildren, this campaign against gas drilling occupies about 40 percent of his time, he said.

He first heard of Marcellus Shale activity about two years ago, then read an infamous November 2008 article in the Washington Observer-Reporter about Ron Gulla, a Hickory farmer who says contamination from a nearby well ruined his drinking water, ravaged his land and killed his animals.

Mr. Parker toured Mr. Gulla's farm and "a trigger went off and I've been gangbusters ever since," he said. It would eventually lead him to the other self-appointed "rock throwers" across Western Pennsylvania who have gone everywhere from small-town fire halls to CBS News to stall what they see as an unregulated, untested and unsafe industry.

They trade emails on the latest studies and usually catch up at protests, he said.

The groups' criticisms have forced major industry players to launch massive public relations campaigns that tout the drilling process as a safe alternative to foreign energy.

Range Resources airs commercials that have landowners tell their stories.

The Blacks are featured in one such commercial, which tells their love story ("He was a country boy and I was a town girl," says Mrs. Black) and explains their passion for setting up scholarships for high school graduates heading off to college.

The video was shot before the rig was built, but Mr. Black explains that Range's "manicured" sites and quick clean-up reassure him about any potential eyesores on his land.

Mr. Parker wasn't as vocal as some of his compatriots "until that baby came up on the hillside," he said, pointing to the rig that peeks out over the hill. Since construction started, he's driven by every day with his camera to take pictures. Usually he's told to leave and it becomes an argument over what's permissible on public roads.

"Retirement isn't as much fun as I thought it'd be," said Mrs. Parker. The couple still travels a good bit, though, and they love more than anything to go out to eat.

When they go to Atria's in Peters, Mr. Parker tells the hostess not to seat them near any industry folks.

One time they were out and saw a neighbor celebrating a signed lease. Mr. Parker asked if she'd consulted with an attorney before signing.

The woman looked at him.

"I can read, can't I?" she said.

Mr. Parker isn't afraid to shout, but face to face with this response from his neighbor, he couldn't say anything.


Erich Schwartzel: eschwartzel@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455.


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