Drilling under Pennsylvania's 'Gasland' town has been banned since 2010. It's coming back.

One of Pennsylvania’s leading natural gas companies is poised to drill and frack in the rural community where it was banned for a dozen years for polluting the water supply

Michael Rubinkam
Wednesday 20 December 2023 06:14 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


A year after pleading no contest to criminal charges, one of Pennsylvania’s leading natural gas companies is poised to drill and frack in the rural community where it was banned for a dozen years for polluting the water supply.

Coterra Energy Inc. has won permission from state environmental regulators to drill 11 gas wells underneath Dimock Township, in the state’s northeastern corner — the sweet spot of the largest natural gas field in the United States, according to well permit records reviewed by The Associated Press. Billions of dollars worth of natural gas, now locked in shale rock deep underground, await Coterra's drilling rigs.

Some landowners, long shut out of royalties because of the state’s lengthy moratorium, can't wait for the Houston-based drilling giant to resume production in Dimock. Other residents dread the industry's return. They worry about truck traffic, noise and the threat of new contamination.

Coterra has not set a date for the resumption of drilling. A company spokesperson, George Stark, said “Coterra is committed to safe and responsible operations wherever we work.” Under its deal with the state, the driller agreed to monitor drinking water supplies within 3,000 feet of the new gas wells and take other steps designed to mitigate risk.

Dimock, a tiny crossroads 15 miles (24 kilometers) south of the New York state line in northeastern Pennsylvania, became ground zero in a national debate over fracking — the extraction technique that spurred a boom in U.S. oil and gas drilling — after residents began reporting that methane and drilling chemicals in the water were making them sick.

A state investigation concluded that faulty gas wells drilled by Coterra’s corporate predecessor, Cabot Oil & Gas, had allowed methane to leak uncontrolled into the community’s aquifer. Cabot was banned from Dimock in 2010 after regulators accused the company of failing to keep its promise to restore or replace the water supply. An Emmy Award-winning documentary, “Gasland,” showed residents lighting their tap water on fire.

After years of litigation and a grand jury probe that resulted in criminal charges, the company pleaded no contest to a single misdemeanor count Nov. 29, 2022. Under a plea agreement, Coterra agreed to foot the bill for a $16 million public water system to supply 20 homes whose water wells had been damaged, and to pay for temporary treatment systems for those who want them.

But for some of the residents, elation about the water line turned to anger when they learned the Department of Environmental Protection had quietly lifted its long-term moratorium on gas production in Dimock. State officials have denied that Coterra pleaded no contest in exchange for being allowed to drill, but residents like Victoria Switzer said they felt deceived.

“I have seen how justice played out here, and it’s not justice,” said Switzer, whose well was among those found to be contaminated, and who has not had a drink from her kitchen faucet since 2009.

Coterra remains prohibited from drilling inside the 9-square-mile (23-square-kilometer) moratorium area itself. The company plans to start the wells outside of Dimock and drill horizontally underneath the community. Some of the planned wells will be nearly 5 miles (8 kilometers) long and well over a mile deep, snaking under the land of more than 80 individual property owners, according to permit records.

The landowners are sitting on a gas gusher. Dimock’s natural gas could be worth $2.5 billion to $3.8 billion, according to Terry Engelder, a retired Penn State geologist whose 2008 calculation of enormous reserves in the vast Marcellus Shale natural gas field helped spur a drilling frenzy in Pennsylvania.

The area’s state representative, Jonathan Fritz, said an overwhelming number of his constituents favor natural gas drilling, an important economic engine in a county where farming, logging and bluestone quarrying were primary industries. A Coterra subsidiary is the No. 1 employer in Susquehanna County, a mountainous region with a population of 38,000.

“Natural gas development has been a godsend,” Fritz said. The residents of Dimock, he said, “were harmed, they did realize a hardship, but I believe they have been made whole.”

Ron Teel, a township supervisor, once had to draw water from a large plastic tank in his yard because his water pipes were clogged with sediment from Cabot’s nearby drilling operation. But Teel, who will have at least three new wells running under his land, said he’s satisfied it will be done safely this time.

“It’s doing a good thing for the country to supply the energy we need so we don’t have to get it from overseas,” he said. “These people who hate us for this, they should be thanking us when they turn on their heat and stove.”

The public water system Coterra agreed to pay for is still years away from being operational, and Pennsylvania American Water Co. – which agreed to build and operate the water line – faces numerous obstacles as it tries to meet a 2027 deadline.

It’s seeking a place away from the region’s dense network of gas wells, pipelines and other infrastructure, no easy task in Susquehanna County, which has over 2,000 gas wells, more than anywhere else in Pennsylvania. Then the utility needs to coax property owners to allow site access. The utility says it’s identified three potential locations for a new public water well.

“We are confident that a water system is feasible in this area and will move ahead addressing the challenges and completing this project,” said Susan Turcmanovich, a spokesperson for Pennsylvania American.

Switzer has her doubts, calling the planned water line “imaginary” and “pretend.”

The retired schoolteacher had been at Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro’s side when — as the state's attorney general — he traveled to Susquehanna County to announce the Coterra plea deal and water line. Shapiro praised the agreement with Coterra as a good outcome for residents who were unable to use their well water. Switzer followed Shapiro to the podium and praised him as “the people's lawyer.”

More than a year later, she denounces Shapiro and said she would never have agreed to speak in support of the deal if she had known about the DEP's decision to allow Coterra to resume drilling.

“I was played a fool,” said Switzer, who will have a gas well running under her land. “This was the most egregious betrayal I’ve experienced in all of the gas wars I’ve been in.”

The attorney general’s office said last year it plays no role in DEP’s regulatory decisions, nor does it share confidential information about criminal investigations with the environmental agency.

But Democratic State Sen. Carolyn Comitta, who recently visited Dimock in her capacity as minority chair of the Senate environmental committee, said she was “shocked and dismayed” when regulators gave permission for Coterra to return to Dimock.

“I’m not sure the moratorium should have been lifted at all,” she said. “There needs to be some leverage to make sure that clean water is is provided to the people who have been suffering all of these years.”

On Tuesday, the governor's spokesperson, Manuel Bonder, said Shapiro “will never forget the people of Dimock,” and is working to get the public water line built “as quickly as possible.”

Shapiro, as attorney general, “secured a historic settlement for Pennsylvanians living in Dimock," Bonder said. “The governor and his administration have been working aggressively to make good on these commitments.”

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