'I Had to Be Realistic' Once an Anti-Shale Symbol, a Pennsylvania Landowner Bows to Financial Need and Signs with Driller

Article excerpt

Two years ago, Denise Dennis delivered a dramatic denunciation of Marcellus Shale natural gas development at a Philadelphia City Council hearing.

She equated drilling to the tobacco industry, and said "Pennsylvanians are the lab rats" for a massive shale gas experiment.

The Philadelphia resident had a powerful story -- her family owned a historic 153-acre farm in Susquehanna County where her ancestors were among the first freed African-Americans to settle in Pennsylvania just after the Revolutionary War. She became a potent symbol in the shale gas wars.

"The process for extracting natural gas from shale is as dirty as coal mining," she testified to thunderous applause at the 2010 council meeting.

But Ms. Dennis' fervor has subsided in the past two years, undone by the financial need of preserving her family's deteriorating historic farm, and by the salesmanship of the Cabot Oil & Gas Corp.

Earlier this month, she signed a lease allowing the Houston company to extract the shale gas beneath her family's farm, which the National Trust for Historic Preservation has called a "rare and highly significant African-American cultural landscape."

"I decided to stop demonizing the industry and to start negotiating with individuals," Ms. Dennis said. "I had to be realistic."

The reality was that most of the surrounding landowners had leased their mineral rights, and gas drilling was going to proceed with or without the Dennis farm.

"We were an island in a sea of leased land," she said. "As I saw it, the drilling companies were now my neighbors, and it was better to get along with them than to be antagonistic."

The lease preserves the Dennis farm by prohibiting Cabot from disturbing the farm's surface. The company can only extract gas by boring horizontally under the Dennis farm from wells drilled on neighboring land.

Ms. Dennis did not disclose the financial terms. But in 2010, she said that gas drillers had offered more than $800,000 for the right to drill. …