Steel yourself, Sullivan County. When the natural gas rush hits the Catskills — and it will — your life and land will profoundly change. This is the inevitable conclusion to be drawn from the drilling boom in neighboring Susquehanna County, Pa., an area that sits on the same gas-rich Marcellus shale formation as Sullivan.
If communities like Dimock and Montrose, Pa., are any indication, gas drilling will alter everything from Sullivan's country roads and pristine vistas to its struggling work force and pure water.
In gas hot spots like Dimock — population, 1,398 — it seems you can't drive more than a few hundred yards without seeing fields dotted with the tall towers of drilling rigs and the blue or green steel "fracking" fluid tanks used for horizontal drilling.
The Elk Lake High School varsity soccer team runs around a field behind the school, very near a gas-drilling rig, during practice in Dimock, Pa., on Oct. 5.
Words like "fracking" have become part of the everyday vocabulary. Billboards advertise gas leasing advice. You can't walk into a diner or the post office without running into someone who's leased his or her land for drilling.
"It's been huge for us, the biggest thing anyone can ever remember that's ever happened," says Joann Kowalski, an educator for Penn State Cooperative Extension.
Her job is now almost exclusively devoted to counseling folks on drilling and its impacts in this northern tier region of Pennsylvania that's had 94 wells drilled in the past two years — with 356 per year projected, according to a study by the Marcellus Shale Education and Training Center, run by the Extension and the Pennsylvania College of Technology.
The same thing could start happening in Sullivan County as soon as next summer once gas companies clear the state's new regulatory hurdles, says the director of the organization whose task is to protect the Delaware River corridor.
"They will eventually take over the whole area," says Bill Douglass, executive director of the Upper Delaware Council.
Unlike the countless casino schemes and development dreams that never come true in Sullivan, gas drilling seems inevitable. Not only does the Marcellus shale contain one of the highest concentrations of natural gas in the country, the horizontal drilling technique known as "fracking" makes it easier to extract.
Like Susquehanna and the rest of the northern tier, Sullivan already has a pipeline to move the gas.
And even though New York has just proposed new drilling regulations, gas companies would still have to jump through more regulatory hoops to build an office building in a particular town than they would to drill in that town, says Douglass' Upper Delaware Council colleague, senior resource specialist Dave Soete.
"There's no way you can really stop or plan for this," says Soete. "It will change the character of everything."
Those steel tanks and towers and the unobtrusive gray well-heads at completed wells will not only become part of the landscape of farms, fields and forests, they'll turn up in the most incongruous places.
For instance, towers sit in the shadow of the Elk Lake High School in Dimock, one of several school districts to lease land to gas companies like Cabot Oil and Gas of Houston.
Just last week, the Elk Lake soccer team ran laps within kicking distance of the wells, which will eventually pay for district improvements like roofs and boilers, says Superintendent Bill Bush.
Those drilling towers rise in front and back yards, alongside silos and at the end of residential roads.
"You get used to it," says farmer Billy Brooks, standing on the porch beneath the battered tin roof of his 150-year-old farmhouse, across from a field being restored by Cabot.
Three years ago, he leased all 336 of his acres.
"I would have had to sell the cows without the money. Couldn't have paid two years of taxes, too."
Roads, like the winding two-lane Hop Bottom in front of Brooks' home, will rumble with trucks with license plates from states like Texas and Colorado, carrying everything from compressors to chemicals.
Stand on any corner or drive on any road in or around Dimock and in one minute you'll see a gas drilling truck.
Just the other day, a 119-foot-long 18-wheeler from Utah knocked down a street sign in front of a neat farmhouse owned by fifth-generation resident Allan Taylor, who recently leased his land to Cabot — at $2,500 an acre and 16 percent royalty.
Money will flow like gas — from leasing, royalties and from all of the workers the rush will bring.
Leasing prices have soared in the three years since gas drilling came to Susquehanna. A group of landowners — similar to groups that have formed in Sullivan and Wayne County, Pa. — have signed a deal with a New York gas company, Fortuna, leasing 60,000 acres for $5,500 an acre, with 20 percent royalty for the extracted gas. That's compared to the $25 an acre and 12 percent royalty the first leasers got a few years ago.
For those who've already inked deals, the checks have ranged from $400 last month for Brooks to $75,000 one month for a client of Montrose lawyer John Dean, who sums up the economic opportunity with three words: "A big deal."
He points out that land prices have doubled, from $3,000-$4,000 an acre a few years ago to $7,000-$10,000 today.
Rental prices have soared because of the influx of workers — wearing baseball hats and work shirts with the logos of companies like "Scientific Drilling" and "Oilfield Tubular" — who need places to stay.
Unemployment — which hovers around 8 percent in both Sullivan and Susquehanna counties — should drop because of "the dramatic increases in development over the next five years," according to a Workforce Needs Assessment Study, by the Marcellus Shale Education and Training Center.
The study estimates that 410 workers, in 150 different occupations, are needed to drill one well, which takes about a month. More than three-quarters of those jobs — which include truck driving and office work and amount to 11.5 full-time jobs in a year — will be filled by people with a high school education.
By the end of this year, gas drilling will create between 1,300 and 2,100 jobs in Pennsylvania's northern tier. Estimated wages for those jobs were unavailable.
Most of those jobs will at first be filled by out-of-state workers like Mike Terrell of Texas, who was recently eating three eggs over easy — with plenty of hot sauce — at one place that's seen business boom from the gas rush: Lockhart's deli, gas station and title shop, which sells everything from hamburger soup to work gloves and notary stamps.
"My business has doubled," says Don Lockhart, "and 90 percent of it is from gas drilling."
Lockhart was standing across from a map filled with thumbtacks showing where all the workers who eat his $5.59 "hearty breakfasts" and buy his $2.15-per-gallon diesel fuel are from — California to West Virginia.
Business is so busy at his store, he wants a stoplight at his intersection.
"You tell those people in New York, they need to be prepared," he says, "for housing, for traffic, for everything."
Environment: Concerns about water, air and noise pollution and impact on roads.
Real estate: Soaring land prices in drilling areas.
Jobs: More than 1,300 new jobs created in one year in one region of Pennsylvania.
Small businesses: Increased traffic from workers.
Taxes: School districts use drilling income to help their budgets.
Even gas-drilling cheerleaders like Lockhart readily acknowledge that the drilling boom has meant water problems for some, and worries for just about everyone.
Three recent spills of fracking fluid at a farm just minutes from Billy Brooks' land and the Elk Lake schools have polluted a nearby stream, killed fish and caused the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to order that Cabot halt fracking at its 128 Susquehanna well sites until it devises a method to prevent future spills.
Those water concerns have also spurred the most opposition to drilling in this area where the water testing business — to test the purity of water nears wells — is now booming.
Down the road from Brooks, Victoria Switzer and her husband, Jim, have seen the dream home they're building turn into the proverbial nightmare as the methane in their well water tripled. It bubbles when they turn on the tap.
This is why they now drink bottled water. So even though they leased their land and even though they get royalties that started at $2,400 and dropped to $1,000 per month for gas that's been found beneath their land, they've soured on drilling.
"We thought this was a great opportunity," says Switzer, a retired teacher. "But we gave up our water and our property values for what?"
Still, most folks in this community with a 13 percent poverty rate — compared to 17 percent in Sullivan — see drilling as an economic shot in the arm.
Even the woman who owns the farm land where the fracking fluid spilled shrugs it off.
"Everything was going just fine until now," says Ann Heitsman.
Folks in Susquehanna know that gas drilling is here to stay. Folks in Sullivan should get ready, too.
"The gas companies aren't going away," says Lockhart. "It's there, in the ground and they're going to get it."Share on Twitter Share on Facebook