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A hydro fracking tower.
A hydro fracking tower.

Landmen first to knock for drilling leases

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Landmen are the advance men of drilling and mining development. They negotiate mineral rights, leases, they clear titles. They handle all sorts of business arrangements between the landowner and the company that wants to mine or drill.

When landmen sit down with property owners over an oil and gas lease, there can be a lot of money at stake. As Emma Jacobs reports, these kitchen table discussions are the front lines of the controversial expansion of natural gas drilling.

Support for the Innovation Trail comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The Innovation Trail is a collaboration between five upstate public media outlets, reporting about New York's innovation economy.

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Ruth Tonachel lives in northeast Pennsylvania for the quiet, quality of life. But change arrived with the landmen.

“When they first showed up in 2007,” Tonachel says, “there were people knocking on the door a couple times a week, calling constantly, stuff in the mail, phone messages, from all different companies, I mean it was hard to even sort out.”

Landmen are the people gas companies send out to convince you to sign a drilling lease. Tonachel’s property has been a family heirloom since 1790 so her approach was very cautious.

She speaks fondly of some of the many landmen she met with. Others did things she didn’t like, like one man she met with at a restaurant.

“He talked awhile about his background and how long he’d been in business and where he was from. And just chit chat friendly talk — I said well I can’t sign anything in a hurry but he pulled out a whole set of leases all with our names on them.”

Like a fast-talking used car salesman landmen would tell Tonachel sign now, this is the best deal you’ll ever get. But when she didn’t sign, they’d come back with a different deal. Signing bonuses went from hundreds to thousands of dollars per acre.

But Tonachel says landmen weren’t always honest with her. Including misrepresenting the holding ponds drillers use to store water:

“They described like basically lakes where you could go swimming,” says Tonachel. “You could go fishing. You could have a dock. And then they started building them. And they’re plastic lined,they’re surrounded by chain linked fence with barbed-wire around the top. I was just appalled.”
Mike Knapp works as a landman in western Pennsylvania, and says , “There’s no doubt that there’re bad eggs out there.”

Knapp’s from Western Pennsylvania and shows off a well pad near the home he grew up in where drilling has finished and  the land’s been cleaned up.

“I’m used to accessing this by dirt bike. Where we drilled this Marcellus well is actually where we used to have a big dirt bike track. So I’m used to coming this way and driving through that field to get over here. But no time for that anymore.”

He says he tries to be respectful of the very personal decision of whether or not to lease. But other landmen across the Marcellus Shale formation have been accused of everything from getting people to pressure their neighbors who haven’t signed leases to threatening landowners. Ohio has even launched an investigation into a gas company document that allegedly spells out how to lie to homeowners.

The whole thing adds up to a lot of nervousness.  Lots of people declined to talk to me for this story.  Those unethical landmen also make it hard for Knapp to gain the trust of landowners.

So he says he wants people to be more informed.

“There has to be ignorance for them to prey on,” Knapp surmises. “I think that that ignorance is very quickly disappearing which is going to very much leave them high and dry here.”

A group from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is taking another tack: they’re giving landmen letter grades. They’ve built a websites that’s like a “yelp” for gas drilling. Chris Csikszentmihalyi is co-creator of the the “landman report card.”

“We heard that different people within a town would have radically different experiences with different landmen. The point of landman report card was essentially to allow surface owners to keep a journal of their interactions.”

They haven’t gotten a flood of reviews to the site. However, whether individual landmen passed or failed now comes up at the top of a Google search for their name.  

“It’s just too late for here,” says Ruth Tonachel, with the 500 acres in northeastern Pennsylvania.

She still hasn’t signed a lease but hasn’t ruled it out completely. She says the land rush is mostly over in her state. But she warns that New Yorkers who haven’t leased yet should get smart - before the landmen come knocking.

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