When I was a kid growing up in the sixties and seventies, the sound of the steady clack-et-y-clack of a couple of oil wells operating up the holler from us provided an intermittent sound track to our days.
We lived beside a narrow little graveled road. The oil men mostly drove pickup trucks to the well sites, maybe an occasional old three-quarter ton truck, and they seemed to be on good terms with my family, who received a small royalty payment on occasion.
Nothing about those drilling practices seemed very remarkable to me, as far as noise or disturbance go.
Looking back, I realize there probably were small amounts of pollution in the creek near the wells from time to time, because I remember noticing the rainbow shimmer of oil on the surface of a puddle a time or two. As far as I know though, there was little lasting harm done.
Eventually the wells were depleted, or maybe the price of foreign oil bottomed out, but the companies pulled out, leaving pipes, tanks and junk lying around to rust into the ground. Some of it is still there.
In the seventies, when oil prices went through the roof, there was a renewed interest in drilling in this county and surrounding ones.
Some larger drilling rigs were brought in and set up. Wells in Estill County again produced and are producing even now. The wells are relatively small and, as far as I know, don’t cause a lot of disturbance to the land or the people living around them.
These wells are straight vertical ones, and, as I understand it, some use a process requiring a modest amount of water with the addition of nitrogen to help break up pockets of natural gas and oil beneath the earth.
Some call this process fracking, or nitrogen fracking.
But there is a newer type of fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, which is much more invasive and dangerous.
After drilling, as deep as two miles, a horizontal drill is also done, (as far as a mile or two out), steel and concrete casements are placed, then copious amounts of water mixed with sand and undisclosed kinds and amounts of chemicals are forcefully injected into targeted layers of shale.
There are companies that want to try that process here to get at the Rogersville shale that lies two miles below some of this area.
Apparently, they caught wind of a study done by the Kentucky Geological Survey about a dozen years ago that revealed there is a large area of shale beneath parts of central Kentucky.
For the past few years, particularly the last three or four months, so-called “land companies” have been in the area, knocking on doors and scoping out old mineral leases in local courthouses.
They say they just want to do some exploratory drilling, and they offer a few dollars an acre. They say if they find anything, they will pay 12.5 percent royalties.
They talk about creating jobs and making people money, but they conveniently leave out the dirty details of the business.
The leases are full of complicated legal language, and the unwary landowner might trust the nice guy from the land company to do him right.
A landowner might look forward to getting enough out of his lease to pay his property taxes, and you certainly can’t fault him for that.
When word gets out that some have signed, ripples of alarm begin to spread among some of the neighbors.
Concerned citizens quickly band together to inform their neighbors that there can be a negative side to any potential new oil boom.
They do research and learn what fracking has done in other parts of the country. They call public meetings. They pass out pamphlets.
Not only do they learn of the abundance of natural gas in the United States, but they learn that “the industry” can choose from a list of 600 chemicals (or more) to inject into the drill sites, and they don’t have to report what they use.
Citizens also learn of the risks, the frequent accidents, and the unscrupulous business side of the industry.
Some concerned citizens create an organization called Frack Free Foothills. They show pictures and share stories of people in West Virginia who have had negative experiences with fracking in their own back yards.
Their goal is to tell the other side of the story, the story not voiced by the nice land men who come calling in rural neighborhoods.
Andrew McNeill, Executive Director of the Kentucky Oil and Gas Association, attends a local public meetings about fracking.
He watches the presentation of a slide show of pictures and video documenting the process of fracking in Wetzel County, West Virginia.
The director asks to speak. He says he wants to tell “the other side” of the fracking story, but it sounds just like the story presented by the land men.
He dismisses the stories of ordinary citizens who shared their negative experiences, calling them “scare tactics.”
Apparently, the fact that a drill site in West Virginia burned for ten days while first responders had no clue what kind of chemicals they were dealing with, the massive heavy traffic on narrow country roads, the air pollution, and the water pollution are all trivial concerns to the oil and gas industry in Kentucky.
If fact, McNeill calls these issues “inconveniences,” and suggests they are small prices to pay for “the rewards.”
When brought to task about the terms of the leases, McNeill calls them “negotiable.”
But I wonder if the nice men from the land companies made that clear to the landowners when they came calling.
McNeil seems a little taken aback that his condescending attitude draws the ire of a group of people anxious to protect their homelands, many of whose families have lived in these valleys for generations.
When someone in the audience asks the director if he’d recommend his family lease their land, he does a lot of “hemming and hawing around” before he answers.
He finally chokes out that he would—if a long list of conditions were met. He doesn’t sound very convincing.
What people do with their private property is their business—up to a point.
But when a choice threatens not only our water and air, but our way of life, it should matter to all of us. We should all have a say. We should not be sweet-talked or exploited by outside interests-again-as Kentucky and West Virginia historically have been time and time again.
It seems to me that our area should be a prosperous one considering the amount of natural resources that have been carted out of this region over the course of the last century.
However, quite the opposite is true. Some of the poorest counties in the country are right here in our back door.
We should ask ourselves why.
We need to be smart about this.
We need to tell those land companies that we know they aren’t talking about Grand-daddy’s kind of oil well.