Editor’s Notebook: Historic Decision

December 2012, Vol. 239 No. 12

Jeff Share, Editor

This is a story about good people. People of diverse backgrounds from different parts of the country brought together by natural gas, the Marcellus Shale.

As a Pennsylvanian, I closely follow the Marcellus and regularly check www.phillynews.com, where I’ve found a friend and colleague, Andrew Maykuth, energy reporter for the Inquirer.

On Nov. 14 Andrew wrote an article entitled “Former shale gas foe makes a deal to allow drilling on her historic farm.” Two years earlier, a woman named Denise Dennis was trying to protect her family farm in northeast Pennsylvania from the invasion of the gas drillers.

Although she lives in Philadelphia, this 153-acre property in rural Susquehanna County has a special meaning for Denise because her ancestors were among the first African Americans to settle in a mostly white community in 1793. The grounds contain the remains of Denise’s great-great-great-great grandfather Prince Perkins, a black Revolutionary War militiaman who would move the family here from Connecticut. The burial site was later known as Underground Railroad Cemetery because of the farm’s work with the abolitionists.

“This place is a reminder that we also owned property in the United States – we had a stake in this country,” said Denise. “Not all blacks were slaves from the South. It says to all of us that things weren’t as black and white as we are often told.”

Thus the property has remained in the family for seven generations, has attracted the interest of the Smithsonian Institution and the National Trust for Historic Preservation which calls it “a rare and highly significant African American cultural landscape.” In 2001 she created the Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust, designed to develop the land as an educational and cultural center.

The property is also located atop the natural gas reserves that comprise part of the Marcellus Shale. So, while most of the neighboring farms sold their mineral rights to gas operators, Denise refused because she feared that drilling on or near the farm could damage the integrity of the property or pollute its water supply. She argued vehemently in 2010 before Philadelphia City Council in her opposition to the gas developers, despite being offered more than $800,000 by landmen.

Those opposing drilling considered Denise a hero. But to maintain the property and its decaying 1859 farmhouse requires a lot of money. Gradually, she softened the rhetoric as she and the people at Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. became better acquainted. Denise realized that there are people in the industry – let’s say most of them – who are concerned about the people they deal with. And for those at Cabot, they grew to understand that there are things more important than money to some people.

Maykuth writes that Cabot CEO Dan O. Dinges took a personal interest when he learned of the farm’s history and met with Denise in 2011 to assure her that his company took her concerns seriously. They took a helicopter tour so she could get a better understanding of the scope of Cabot’s Susquehanna County operations.

Cabot spokesman George Stark told Maykuth that Cabot could have developed the surrounding leases without the farm. That lease, however, gave Cabot the rights under a larger contiguous area, providing for more efficient development.

But it was more important for Cabot to do the right thing. “The issue that grabbed the attention of our senior management was the history and heritage of her land. We were able to walk her though our process, the precautions we take. It was an opportunity to dispel some myths and rumors.”

No figures were released when Denise signed the lease allowing Cabot to drill on the property. She will also receive royalty payments from gas produced there.

Still, it wasn’t an easy decision. These days Denise is no longer the darling of the drilling opponents.

“Yes, I was vehement but where did that get me? And what would not signing have achieved? I decided to stop demonizing the industry and to start negotiating with individuals. I had to be realistic,” she said.

“You don’t get ideal situations in life.”

What a great country!