Natural gas — Appalachia’s other energy dilemma

Stand on a ridgeline in southwestern Virginia. You’ll see lush hardwood forests, dark-green groves of rhododendron, blue skies … and square, neat clearings, marked by green tanks and red well heads. They dot almost every ridge, every nook and knob in the mountainous terrain. Look directly overhead, and you might also be standing under a giant, buzzing electric-line tower that connects to a long line of others, as far as you can see.
“That’s the snap-crackle-pop you’re hearing,” says landowner, teacher and Dickenson County native Gail Marney, age 55. By her reckoning, the massive transmission lines were built in the 1960s and 70s, cutting across a corner of her family property and carrying electricity out to the rest of America while Dickenson County gets left behind. Anything of value here, she argues, is being extracted. “Our resources are being taken out, and there’s little or no benefit to the locals,” Marney said.
The newest resource being tapped is coal-bed methane, CBM for short. Gas companies in the region plan to have thousands of wells drilled in the coming decade. The sheer number of them concerns the Marneys and their neighbors. They also worry about the impact on the environment, voice frustration with their dealings with the gas companies and their contractors, and point to ongoing indignities, such as heavy vehicles using their road for access to wells on adjacent property not included in their right-of-way agreement, and workers tossing trash indiscriminately and leaving behind other unsanitary material.
Though landowners like Marney get small royalties for the CBM and payments for right-of-ways for the pipelines and roads, she says, “We’ve literally been shit upon. I feel like we’ve been sold out.”
Strong words, but call it a feeling she has, And there’s a history to it.

In the beginning

Gail and husband Rick own 300 acres in the steep backcountry of Dickenson County (and it’s all backcountry here). They live in her grandfather Sutherland’s house, a sprawling home that started as a small log cabin and grew as the family grew. On the road to the house, you pass the oldest home in the county, Fairview, built in the 1800s, and the almost as old Sutherland family cemetery (complete with a CBM-related green storage tank across the road). Gail’s great-grandfather, William B. Sutherland, served as the county’s first head of the commissioners’ board, too, so she figures her sons are at least sixth-generation in these parts.
Rick Marney, a retired electrical engineer who teaches in the county, too, is a bit of an amateur historian and actor. “Old-timers called this area the Devil’s Apron Strings, because it was so hard to live here,” he says. Even today, incomes and opportunities remain scarce: Rick points out that teachers here are some of the lowest paid in the country. Hard times go way back: The creek far below their mountaintop home was called Frying Pan because some early settlers discovered an old one in the water, abandoned, he recounts. They marveled, he said, because in those early days, your frying pan was your most prized possession; if it had been tossed in the creek, its owners must have been killed by Indians or outlaws.
Nowadays, the creek is prized for its trout fishing, though many fishermen remain wary of the green holding tanks so common along the creeks and rivers, say the Marneys. When a new well was being drilled in the past year, fishermen in the creek felt the earth shake and witnessed a tank almost bubbling over with the brine water produced in the process; briny water and trout don’t mix, and the drillers are supposed to collect and haul it away, says Rick.
But back to the history: Part of the problem in southwestern Virginia is that current landowners and heirs lost their mineral rights a hundred years ago, when their ancestors and previous owners sold the coal rights, Rick continues. “A group of plays called the ‘Kentucky Cycle’ captures that history in this region, from stealing land from the Indians to [buying] the coal from the early settlers,” says the teacher. He recalls that those long-ago landowners got about $1 per acre for the mineral rights, and now rights to the CBM are entangled in the mix.
A 1977 Virginia law (the Migratory Gas Act) granted gas ownership to surface landowners, but the more recent 1990 Virginia Oil and Gas allowed extraction and capture of CBM – while leaving ownership issues “for future judicial determination,” as summarized in a 2004 lawsuit (Harrison-Wyatt, LLC v. Donald Ratliff, et al). In that case, a Virginia judge determined that the Ratliff’s heirs owned the rights to the CBM, a “migratory” gas that couldn’t be tied to the mineral rights owned by the coal company; but Harrison-Wyatt has appealed.
These days, there are almost as many lawsuits pending as there are new CBM drill-sites in Dickenson County (now in the thousands and up from a few hundred in the 1980s). Sometimes the coal companies and the gas companies duke it out; sometimes the landowners’ heirs try to get their share of the 8-percent royalties that Virginia law grants them and puts in escrow while the legal dust settles (there’s about $18 million in escrow, at the moment, and the gas and coal companies have been trying to get some of it back).
The whole thing leaves a sour taste in the mouths of residents like the Marneys and their neighbors.

The fighter
Meet Juanita Sneeuwjat. She’s a petite, not quite plump, self-described feisty Bantam chicken of a woman. A fighter, in other words. “The Queen [of England] could walk through my door and I wouldn’t be intimidated. Well, maybe a little,” says Juanita.
She was born and bred on Backbone Ridge, the other side of the county from Gail Marney’s homestead, and she’s almost 15 years older. She’s proud of this little corner of the world, though she spent more than 30 years away, mostly in the D.C. area. In Clintwood, Virginia (the nearest town), she’ll point out such sights as the Ralph Stanley Museum (the native son at the heart of modern country music). She’ll tell you she has 7 brothers and 4 sisters (many still alive), and remembers walking the 10 miles to town, as a child. “Before 1935, women weren’t allowed in the courthouse in Dickenson County,” she mentions as we drive around town in a stylish white Mercedes which she bought as a retirement gift to herself.
Women were allowed in the courthouse after 1935, she says as an aside, because that is when the first woman to ever be convicted of murder in Dickenson County went on trial.
She’ll also explain that “Sneeuwjat,” her married name, is Dutch and means “snow baby.” Her husband’s father got the name from his foster parents, who found him as an infant, on their doorstep, in the middle of a snowstorm. He went on to be a successful diplomat in Indonesia, where his wife and children (including her husband) were captured by the Japanese in World War II; her husband, she feels, never fully recovered from those days, when the children were made to haul away the dead.
Years after their divorce, Juanita came back home to Dickenson County. It was on a 2006 hike across her family property that she came across a series of pink ribbons tied to the trees and marking — well, she didn’t know what they were for, at first. Who had trespassed on her family land? A neighbor saw men who seemed to be surveyors, and assumed Juanita’s family had hired them.
Later that fall, a representative of Equitable Gas Production called her; it was their men who had surveyed the property (without asking first for access). They proposed drilling a new CBM well and laying a new pipeline; they wanted Juanita’s and her siblings’ consent to a land lease, for about $5 an acre.
“We all said no,” says Juanita. They didn’t want their land disturbed in the ways they saw occurring over the region, with a new well added every day and miles of pipelines cutting through the woods. She added her own declaration, “You’ll get [a lease] when pigs fly.”
But Equitable drilled on a plot adjacent to the family land and extracted the CBM anyway – a “forced pooling,” it’s called. “We [each] got a check for $5.68,” says Juanita. “They cannot say they stole the gas, because they’re paying us pennies [in] royalties.” And it’s all legal, approved by the Virginia Oil and Gas Board, says Juanita.
While she realizes that it appears the mineral rights were sold off at the turn of the 20th century, Juanita says of the 1990 Virginia Gas and Oil Act, “It is a law, but a law being the right law is another story.”
She’s been fighting and organizing against natural-gas drilling in Dickenson County ever since.
Legal and good for America
Coal bed natural-gas deposits in the Appalachian Basin offer up to 50 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of natural gas, scattered across the region. It takes less than 90 thousand cubic feet to heat a 2,000-square-foot home in Virginia, to give you a sense of the size we’re talking about. Much of the coal bed methane gas is located in the coal seams of southwestern Virginia, including Dickenson, Buchanan and Wise Counties.
Equitable Production (based in Philadelphia) and Range Resources (a Texas-based company) control about 300,000 acres’ worth of mineral rights in the area, referred to as the Nora field. In an Investor’s Daily report filed April 4 this year, Range CEO John Pinkerton claimed, “The two of us own essentially the whole play.” He remarked that the Marcellus Shale deposits linked to the Nora field, overall, will one day be the largest natural-gas source in the U.S. and the most profitable; with a bit fewer than 2,000 wells in existence today, the field could support another 6,000. Investor Daily noted the high-profit margin, noting that royalties paid to landowners in Appalachia run half what are sometimes paid to their counterparts in the Barnett Shale source in Texas.

Good business.
A hundred years ago, says Dickenson resident Barney Fife, who serves on a citizen’s advisory board for the Oil and Gas Board, that gas was not a valuable resource but a hazard – the “miners’ curse.” Coal companies vented it outside to avoid explosions. It wasn’t until the 1970s and 80s that technological advances made it feasible to harvest the CBM, he explains: In one method, after drilling a hole thousands of feet down, companies use high-pressure injections of a briny fluid to “frac” (fracture) or “excite” the coal seam and release the gas. The brine – “so salty and full of heavy metals, it’ll ruin everything,” says Fife – is collected in the ubiquitous green tanks and hauled away. The gas is pumped through pipelines (above ground, unless a landowner specifies otherwise in the lease agreement) and across the steep terrain to larger pipes, then to collection tanks. While the pipelines, the wells and the disturbed terrain are unsightly to him, Fife admits, “It’s good methane.”
And that’s good for the U.S. Equitable spokesperson Dave Spigelmyer told Appalachian Voices, “Natural gas is a domestic resource, and it’s the cleanest burning fossil fuel. Using natural gas will reduce our dependence on [imported] oil.”
He emphasizes that Equitable paid about $10 million last year in taxes to local and state government in Virginia. That money “funds government services [and] schools, and [helps] avoid tax increases.” Equitable also made about $3 million in charitable donations in the region, and broke ground on a new headquarters in Dickenson County. The latter will bring about 70 jobs into the county, on top of jobs already available for those working on drilling and pipe-laying projects – from the bulldozer drivers to the engineers, he claims.
When told that some residents are upset by the environmental impacts of well drilling, Spigelmyer concedes, “There is a temporary disruption while we’re preparing the site and drilling the well, [but the] initial disruption is less than an acre per well.”
He insists that Equitable, “in all cases,” tries to work with landowners and residents in addressing any problems, such as downed trees and access roads in need of extra maintenance. “We’re anxious to be a partner. … If our people damage a road, then we would be anxious to work with [the landowner] to make sure their property is repaired. Leaving something [damaged] is not the way we like to do things.”
Equitable, and other gas companies operating in the Appalachian region, “are working to produce the nation’s most benign fuel,” he adds. Perplexed to hear of the Marney’s complaints, Spigelmyer says they need to contact Equitable regarding each complaint. He also offers an overall observation about Americans that ring all too true, whether you’re talking about natural gas or gasoline: [We] have an appetite for [natural gas and oil]. Where do we think the resources are coming from? [CBM] is a domestic source.”
He insists that any initial disruptions to the land “will look better” in a few years.
And it’s true that a newly drilled site — surrounded by felled trees, the land scraped to raw red dirt, the site ringed by silt-fences that don’t hold up particularly well — looks bad next to an older well that’s been in production for a few years, Appalachian Voices observed.
But does that reassure residents like the Marneys or self-proclaimed activists like Juanita?

Treat us right
After a half-day of touring well sites and speaking with Juanita and the Marneys, Appalachian Voices got to sit in on an impromptu dinner meeting. The Marney’s neighbors stopped by to enjoy a gut-stretcher meal that Gail called a “small” feast, and Juanita steered the conversation toward her call to arms. “I want everybody to get mad,” she said, showing a map of planned wells in the region.
It’s so peppered with dots showing existing and soon-to-be drilled wells, you often can’t make out the names of towns and communities.
“They’re tearing up all the mountains ‘round here. The companies don’t care,” said Mary (we’ll stick to first names, since some of the Marney’s friends and neighbors have ongoing negotiations with Equitable).
“I wish we’d done something [to fight] the first well. Now there are so many. We have some of the prettiest country [in the U.S.]. Maggie Valley and Dollywood have nothing on us, if we’d just stand up,” said Iris. Her husband added the tale of an acquaintance whose water well ran dry after a gas well was drilled on his land – an effect, sometimes, of the way the drilling process “fractures” the coal seam to release the gas; it also shifts groundwater. Iris’ husband said, “It took a lot of wrangling but [my neighbor] got a new water well.”
Gail observed, “We should be one of the richest counties in Virginia [because] of our gas and coal.”
“And timber,” said neighbor John.
But the county isn’t. Gail, a high school teacher, is all too well acquainted with the poverty levels here, though she does her part as an online internet teacher who specializes in making sure her students have access to advanced courses not offered locally. She has yet to see the local job creation Spigelmyer talks about, remarking that most of the contractor’s trucks have out-of-state tags (including one witnessed by Appalachian Voice and sporting a Halliburton i.d.). Gail pleads, “If Equitable would just listen with respect to us, and do what they say and take care of the problems.” She adds a complaint with local and state politicians, too, who seem more concerned with the millions of dollars they get in gas severance-tax revenues than the concerns of residents: “Our local government’s attitude is the short-term view.”
“Once you tear down the mountain, you can’t put it back!” Juanita tossed in, as the dinner party dispersed.

The future
It makes sense to find domestic energy sources. And it would be wonderful to bring much-needed, good-paying jobs to southwest Virginia, Juanita and her budding activist neighbors agree.
But Fife, who admits he’s a bit weary after more than two decades tracking the natural-gas issue in his backyard, remarks, “It seems like every 100 yards, we’re going to have a gas well.”
An encyclopedia of information, Fife notes that wells had to be a half-mile apart just a few years ago. Recent changes to the regulations allow new wells to be as close as 800 feet. He worries about the brine water that’s produced during drilling (and re-used in part of the process): “You can’t just put it in the creek or [dump it on] the land. It kills everything.” He worries that the “frac’ing” process may propagate the cracks that always exist in coal seams, and allow the brine to “find a hole someplace and come up and ruin everything. … They assure us that would never happen.”
But with an ever-increasing number of wells and their closer placement, Barney isn’t reassured. He and others have tried to get an Environmental Protection Agency study, but he has no faith in the current U.S. administration, he says. He’s also frustrated by the mineral rights problems. “If you own the land, you should be getting royalties.”
Granted, there are often numerous heirs, as ownership is traced back to homesteaders who may have sold their coal rights. Virginia, says Department of Mines, Mineral and Energy Department spokesperson Mike Abbott, was the first state to create an escrow count for all royalties pending the settlement of ownership issues.
True, but although Fife’s family-in-law retained their mineral rights a hundred years ago and didn’t sell it off, the royalties amount to pennies when the gas companies are making millions, he argues.
Nearby Buchanan County property owner Sarah Day complains, “You pay the property taxes on your [land], but you don’t really own anything.” A young 72 years old, Day says she and her family have been attending meetings of the Virginia Gas and Oil board for 15 years, trying to monitor things, voice their concerns and protect their rights. “But it seems that the gas companies are above the law; whatever they ask for [at the Board], they get, no matter what the people say. … I thought the board was supposed to represent both sides. We never gave permission to drill on our land [but] the board does.”
She tells of a contractor tearing up the right-of-way and putting a well right in the middle of the only access to a good portion of the family land – “a road we had use used all our life, and now we have limited access to our own property.” Says Day, “I’d like to see some progress with this before I die.”


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