The Fracking Lottery

“When I moved to Billtown, I worried most about whether fracking tainted groundwater. By the time I left the area, my biggest concern was whether the liberty granted to citizens to lease their land, or to otherwise act in ways that limits others’ access to environmental goods, taints democracy.”

Colin Jerolmack | Up to Heaven and Down to Hell: Fracking, Freedom, and Community in an American Town | April 2021 | 2,303 words (8 minutes)

Excerpted from Chapter 3: The Fracking Lottery

Like state-run lotteries (and unlike most of real life), the fracking lottery was also rather random from a sociological perspective, in that lessors’ socioeconomic status had little bearing on their chances of coming out a winner.7 In fact, some of the biggest winners were land-poor folks like George Hagemeyer, whose inherited properties were millstones before fracking. Not long before I met George, he was barely getting by on his custodian’s pension. Duct tape traversed his linoleum kitchen floor. The cabinets sagged. A faded wallpaper mural of a fall landscape that had enjoyed pride of place on his living room wall for forty years was peeling. A tarp had been hastily draped over the leaking roof of a ramshackle trailer parked in his front yard that George used as a shed. He drove a jalopy.

Not that George was one to complain. “If you wanna look at the bad things all the time, that’s all you’re ever gonna see. You hafta look at the good side, too.” The good side was that, out of seven siblings, he was the one who had been gifted his dad’s land. He planned to die here, but he worried about what would happen to the property afterward. The natural order of things, according to George, is for a father to entrust his son to be the land’s next steward. But George didn’t have a son, and neither his adopted daughter nor his teenage granddaughter showed interest in living on the estate. His brother, who used to live next door, on a sliver of the family farm, had already sold out.

George’s fortunes did not change overnight. Like the Shaners, he leased in the mid-2000s, before anyone in the region had even heard the word fracking. The going rate at the time was only $5 per acre, roughly the amount that wildcatters had been paying for decades for the right—which they almost never exercised—to probe for trapped pockets of underground methane. Given the region’s historic experience with vertical gas wells, which were low impact, few in number, and almost never put into production, a visit from the landman didn’t set off alarm bells for George. (Some lessors complained that gas companies intentionally glossed over how horizontal drilling would be different—i.e., far more disruptive for lessors and far more lucrative for the industry.) George ran the lease, which offered $12 per acre for the first year and $4.50 per acre for the remaining four years (for a total payout of $2,360), by his lawyer. He was told it was a good deal. George smirked. “How many times do you think I’m ever gonna hire that lawyer to do anything for me again? It’s between zero and none.”

Sociologist Stephanie Malin and colleagues argue that leasing disempowered lessors like George, “precisely because negotiations occurred privately between industry representatives and individual landowners.”8 Most lessors, including people with counsel, lacked full information on what they could bargain for. The structure of private land leasing played into the industry’s hands. In most instances, gas company representatives were able to convince landowners to lease through one-on-one negotiations—situations in which the industry held all the cards. It never occurred to George that he could have collectively bargained with his neighbors, as the Crawleys did; as a result, he arguably got fleeced.

When I asked George if he felt cheated, though, he responded, “I can’t holler.” He noted that he “made a nice chunk of money” for the pipeline under his field. More than the gleaming Ford Explorer SUV and the $8,000 Scag riding mower, what mattered most to him about the windfall was being able to start a college fund for his granddaughter Maddie. Her portrait—knees tucked close to her chest, her blond hair framing a shy teenager smile—was the only tabletop adornment in his living room. Tearfully glancing at her photo, George managed to blurt out, “I love that girl to pieces,” before momentarily going silent to collect himself. “She deserves everything.”

George hoped to be able to give his granddaughter everything in the near future. I stood with him on a scorching July afternoon in 2013 as he supervised the workers preparing to bring his moneymakers—that is, the six gas wells in his backyard—online (i.e., connected to the pipeline). Despite the heat, the roughnecks were required to wear thick fire-retardant suits. “Ugh,” George commented, “I’d rather go pick shit with the chickens than wear one of those damned things!” As was his wont, George chatted up the nearest hard hat, who happened to be a field analyst who told us he recently migrated here from the oilfields in Wyoming. “We’re hopin’ for some pretty good wells here,” the man remarked nonchalantly. “You are?” George asked excitedly, rubbing his hands together as if caressing an imaginary stack of royalty checks. “I am too!” he exclaimed, before becoming overwhelmed by belly laughs. The worker readily indulged George’s fantasy. Based on the wellheads’ high-pressure-gauge readings, he had “a feeling they’re gonna be some pretty good ones.”

Once the man walked away, George began chuckling as he imagined life as a “shaleionaire.” He told me he would be the lousiest rich person alive, because he would give it all away. In addition to planning to pick up the tab for his granddaughter’s college tuition and buy her a car for graduation, he wanted, he said, “to be able to take care of my brothers and sisters that were born and raised here.” On second thought, George conceded that he didn’t plan to give all the royalty money away. “I wanna protect my home as much as possible.” Materially, that meant remodeling his careworn kitchen and installing a new roof—ideally, a metal one. Legally, that meant rewriting his will so that part of his new-found fortune stayed with the property, meaning that his daughter would forfeit any claim to her inheritance if she attempted to sell or transfer ownership of the estate. George also entertained more fanciful visions, like constructing a pond in his field “big enough to put two islands in,” with “an arch bridge going from one to the other with a flowering cherry [tree] in the middle of each one,” and like buying out his neighbor and bulldozing the house, so he didn’t have to look at it.

When the money, such as it was, began rolling in, George had some fun. He purchased a kayak and a large passenger van to transport it, so that he didn’t have to bother attaching a trailer to his SUV. On one visit, I found his table littered with ads torn out of magazines for resorts in the Poconos, casinos in Atlantic City, and even a fourteen-day cruise in Alaska. He had taken to purchasing decorative plates painted with American flags and animals like deer and eagles—which he displayed on counters, sills, and almost any other flat surface he could find throughout the house—and to collecting limited-edition Monopoly board games (the crown jewel, which he said he picked up on a day trip to Corning, New York, with his granddaughter, was gold-foil-stamped and constructed of mahogany). And he sported a fancy new watch that he had seen on TV and had to have. ‘They said the list price was $1,500, but I got it for a little more than $500.’*

It took some time to get his kitchen remodeled, in part because George acted like a self-described “pain in the ass.” Seeming to relish a rare opportunity to play the part of a bigwig, George gleefully recounted how he fired two contractors for not following his detailed specifications (he said one bought the wrong sink; another “hung the cabinets too darn high!”). The kitchen was finally completed in the fall of 2016, and it was such a total transformation that it could have been featured on Extreme Home Makeover: all stainless-steel appliances, including (finally) a dishwasher; wraparound stained solid-wood cabinets; marble countertops; an embossed ceiling that imitated the tin ceilings of old; and, of course, a new tiled floor to replace the duct-taped linoleum. The bathroom, whose origin as an outhouse attached to the kitchen meant that it was perennially dank, was also gut renovated. Its newly installed cedar paneling (including on the tub), wall-to-wall carpet, and insulated walls emanated both figurative and literal warmth. The showpiece, which George couldn’t wait to present to me, was a walnut bay window installed in the laundry room, off the back of the kitchen. Previously, he had no view of his backyard from the kitchen. Its three panes now framed an archetypal rustic scene: the lush green expanse of his lawn extending toward distant tree stands, with the misty mountains looming in the background. (He shrugged off the occasional odor of industrial chemicals like benzene that wafted in from the well pad through his window, noting that the problem was easily solved by jamming rags between the window and the sill.) ‘They were gonna do that window with pine,’ George said with disgust. He went on, ‘Now, pine would’ve only set me back $800, and this cost ten times that. But you ain’t doing my window with pine! Over my dead body!’

Though the living room was relatively unchanged, George did make one significant alteration as an ode to his mother: he replaced her faded, flaking wallpaper mural. The new mural, also a fall scene that took up the entire wall, consisted of dozens of painted vinyl squares glued together. George had actually purchased it four years earlier with his pipeline bonus money, but it sat rolled up behind his loveseat for want of the additional funds required for a professional installation. Knowing that I used to rib him about the unfinished job, George proudly sat for a portrait session with the mural as a backdrop when I visited him in the fall of 2017 with a photographer. Although the declining productivity of his wells, along with the bottoming-out of natural-gas prices, reduced George’s monthly royalties from five figures to four figures in less than a year, he fulfilled his dream of surprising his granddaughter with a new Ford Escape for her high school graduation, in 2017. He joyfully recounted the story of driving Maddie to the dealership under the pretense that his own car needed repairs, and then parking by the white SUV and announcing, “It’s yours!” George sold his two-year-old passenger van to finance the $28,000 cash purchase, which was a reminder that his newfound wealth was finite. Yet the fact that George had grown accustomed to paying in full up front for big-ticket items was an indicator of how privileged fracking had made him. One way he expressed his gratitude was by donating $500 worth of food and new clothes to a shelter on Thanksgiving; he said he made his granddaughters tag along, ‘to show them how to be charitable.’

Thanks to land leasing, George had finally broken free of a lifetime of relative deprivation. Though he was hardly alone in turning to the fracking lottery in an effort to escape hardship, George certainly made out better than most. Of course, those who didn’t own any mineral estate couldn’t participate in the fracking lottery. What’s more, in some places—especially Billtown—tenants faced rising rents, and in 2012 residents of the Riverdale Mobile Home Park were forced out after a company bought the land in order to construct a water withdrawal site. In the rural places of Lycoming County where most drilling occurred, though, almost everyone owned rather than rented (in Gamble Town- ship, where George lived, only 10 percent of the population were rent- ers).9 And, unlike in parts of the Midwest, almost all the landowners here held the mineral rights. Everyone who leased got something, but it’s a minority, it seems, who wound up with life-changing money.10

The fact that few lessors hit the jackpot, while most of them experienced some degradation in their quality of life, has led some analysts to conclude that petroleum companies exploited the vulnerability of marginalized small-scale farmers and homeowners. Like the disproportionately impoverished group of people who buy lottery tickets, the thinking goes, many lessors felt they had little choice but to sign, because leasing was their only potential escape from economic insecurity. Some scholars call scenarios like this “environmental blackmail,” because, they argue, residents must choose between their health and their livelihood.11 In addition, fracking introduced new inequalities among neighbors: members of the Shaner clan earned enough royalties to endow college funds and hire maids; the Crawleys, just down the hill, received just a $7,000 one-time bonus, which came at the expense of their fresh-water supply (now laced with methane from a neighbor’s gas well). The Department of Environmental Protection shut in the faulty well, foreclosing the possibility of it generating royalties for the Crawleys.

As for his own misfortune, Tom Crawley resignedly concluded that “accidents happen” and optimistically pointed to the Shaners, implying that he could just as easily have been in their shoes. His neighbor Doyle Bodle, whose water was also impacted by drilling, reiterated that most lessors “are not having any problems,” and that even people not impacted by drilling can wind up with bad water, suggesting that geology itself shouldered much of the blame. “Losers” like Tom and Doyle saw themselves primarily as victims of bad luck—in particular, of an unfortunate location—rather than of bad actors or systemic inequity. And the fact that topography and luck largely determined the winners appealed to residents’ egalitarian sensibilities. Anyone could win, regardless of occupation, education, or wealth. In this way, private mineral ownership, a peculiarly American idea, made fracking compatible with the American Dream-even as it created new socioeconomic disparities, exposed landowners to significant environmental risks, and oftentimes left lessors holding the bag.

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* Throughout this book, double quotation marks signify that the utterance was audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim. Single quotation marks represent my reconstruction of dialogue based on handwritten notes. I make this distinction to signal that utterances inside single quotation marks may be less reliable than those inside double quotation marks, as it seems almost impossible to capture speech verbatim with notes, even if they are written contemporaneously.

7. While it is plausible that wealthier and more educated residents were advantaged in negotiating lease and royalty payments, the biggest predictor of whether or not one hired a lawyer was not socioeconomic status but the size of one’s property (small landowners surmised that lawyer fees would eat up most of their leasing bonus). Dylan Bugden and Richard Stedman’s survey of lessors in northeastern Pennsylvania lends additional support to my claim that socioeconomic status did not play a significant role in determining outcomes in the fracking lottery. They find that “outcomes tend to vary by firm-specific rather than sociostructural factors.” See Dylan Bugden and Richard Stedman, “Rural Landowners, Energy Leasing, and Patterns of Risk and Inequality in the Shale Gas Industry,” Rural Sociology 84, no. 3 (2019): 459–88

8. Stephanie A. Malin et al., “The Right to Resist or a Case of Injustice? Meta-Power in the Oil and Gas FieldsSocial Forces 97, no. 4 (2019): 1811–38.

9. “Gamble Township, Pennsylvania Housing Data,” TownCharts.com, accessed July 15, 2020.

10. Public data only allow estimates of the total amount of money of leasing bonuses and royalties paid out to lessors by oil and gas companies, not how much each lessor received (see, e.g., Timothy Fitzgerald and Randal R. Rucker, “US Private Oil and Natural Gas Royalties: Estimates and Policy Relevance,” OPEC Energy Review, 40, no. 1 (2016): 3–25). Anecdotally, few if any journalistic reports of shale communities turn up more than a few local instances of shaleionaires. See, e.g., Tom Wilber, Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012); Andrew Maykuth, “Shale Gas Was Going to Make Them Rich. Then the Checks Arrived,” Philadelphia Inquirer, December 21, 2017.

11. Stephanie Malin, “There’s No Real Choice but to Sign: Neoliberalization and Normalization of Hydraulic Fracturing on Pennsylvania Farmland,” Journal of Environmental Studies and Science 4 (2014): 17–27.

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Excerpted from Up to Heaven and Down to Hell: Fracking, Freedom, and Community in an American Town. Published by Princeton University Press.