Dan Hust | Democrat
BILL GRABY STANDS on top of the hay-covered route of the Millennium Pipeline, a major natural gas transmission line about to begin operations. It slices through his Callicoon farm on its way from Corning ot the NYC market.
Farmer says gas good for open space
By Dan Hust
CALLICOON Both farmer and negotiator, Callicoon native Bill Graby is leading a group of landowners representing around 70,000 acres who are looking to secure leases for gas drilling.
The following Q&A represents not only the conclusion of the interview with Graby but also the multi-part presentation of local farmers’ views on gas drilling in the area.
Q: There are a range of locals who oppose gas drilling and, thus, your efforts. Did that materialize before or after you formed the Sullivan-Delaware Property Owners Association?
A: We had no opposition for at least the first two or three months. None.
... That really didn’t develop until sometime in April or May, and then all the “treehuggers” or environmentalists started questioning what was going on and telling us we didn’t need to do this.
Q: Do you believe there are any legitimate concerns about gas drilling?
A: There are a lot of legitimate points, but our group and the Pa. group, we’re all fighting for the same thing, [just] as some of the more sensible environmentalists are.
We would like to see a closed-loop system or fracking tanks [to deal with the chemically-laced fluid used in the hydraulic fracturing process].
We don’t really want to see this stuff put in ponds, but yet if it has to be, the gas companies will just have to make the ponds big enough to hold the water, with a safety margin capable of handling major floods.
Plus if they bring in a truckload of water, they’ll take out a truckload of frack material.
We all want the same thing: safe drilling. What more can you say? Safe drilling that doesn’t harm our environment.
Q: But there are people who don’t want it at all.
A: That’s their opinion. They don’t pay my bills.
Let’s look at it this way: the opposition says that it will cause mass industrialization and urbanization.
... I don’t know too many [farmers] that could retire and sell off their herds and be able to stay on their farm.
They could probably stay here, but they’d have to sell off a parcel or two of land every year to survive.
So what gas drilling will do is help the farmers stay on the farm and keep the land undeveloped.
All the farmers that are left here right now are basically hardcore farmers. We could have all sold out already. I was offered a phenomenal price for my land last September by a development group and didn’t take it.
I get offered a phenomenal price basically every year, and I don’t take it. Why? Because this is a family farm. It is the center hub of my family. All my nieces and nephews, my grandkid… they all come back to the family farm. My son wants to put a house on that hill, my daughter wants to put a house on that [other] hill, and my other daughter wants to put a house someplace else.
They would like to stay here. There are no jobs here.
Now the [Millennium] pipeline came through, and a ton of local people went to work for the pipeline. Now a lot of them didn’t get to actually sit in machines. A lot of them got hired on as laborers, at $32-$33 an hour, plus benefits. That is a good thing. Gas drilling will also mean many more jobs.
... People talk about mass industrialization. Everything is OK when somebody wants to buy a piece of property off a farmer. ... It’s OK if somebody comes up to me and buys two acres that they can put a house on… but nobody wants to see Bill Graby with a gas well sticking out of the ground that has a pipe that is only six foot high and 18 inches around.
So which is going to be worse? Me eventually selling off two-acre lots all over the place, or me holding onto the property and allowing no development at all because I have a gas well?
If the gas is developed, the only houses that will be here someday will be mine and my kids. Otherwise, there might be 100 houses here.
... Right now the average farmer in this county is probably 50 years old, with not too many young kids coming into it.
So what’s it going to be? It’s either going to be gas drilling, or everything is going to be sold off for housing developments.
Housing developments are much worse for the environment, and no open space group has the money to pay top dollar for all the land in the county.
Q: But what about the potential disruption of your farming activities?
A: I have 4,000 feet of [Millennium] pipeline on my property. I saw 400-500 different machines come through my property. My cows didn’t drop in milk production. They didn’t bother my cows in fact, some of my bulls chased the workers.
... I have probably met 250-300 different people this year. Not one of them has interfered with my job.
One day they had dug up everything across my barnyard, and they were ready to put the pipe in. ... The milk truck came. ... They filled the ditch back in, brought in steel plates, everything came to a halt, they backed the truck across, let him get back out, they redug the hole, laid the pipe in.
... Everybody I talk to that has either had an oil or gas well drilled on their property or has pipeline people on their property doesn’t have a problem with the industry.
They will please you. They’ll do anything to please you. This is their job. They’re not here to be a pain in the ass. They are here to get their job done, be as inconspicuous as they can, and be gone.
The major exploration companies have a similar excellent reputation nationwide.
Q: But what of these reports of environmental disasters related to gas drilling?
A: It’s all in the [addenda to the leasing] contract.
Back in early, early spring, probably the end of February or March, we met with Chesapeake. We could have signed a deal that day that was better than Pennsylvania was getting, but the lease wasn’t right environmentally.
If you don’t read the contract, you are just asking for problems. If you just sign, they can come in here and they could put a pumphouse right here, right on my back door. They have literally complete rights to all surface area if you don’t have the lease worded in the right way.
It just comes down to business.
Q: So are you worried about some of the early signers of leases in this area?
A: I am concerned about them in one respect: that they’re not going to get the money that they should have gotten or could get.
Do I think the gas companies will really come in and drill [irresponsibly]?
... Are the gas companies really going to come in and just destroy them? No. But there are some things that, push come to shove, they won’t have a say in.
Q: So what kind of environmental safeguards have you put in your proposed lease agreement?
A: Well, like I said, we would rather have frack tanks than open ponds.
Q: But you’re not necessarily going to demand that it’s negotiable, isn’ it?
A: I think the DEC [State Department of Environmental Conservation] is going to demand that, when it’s finally all said and done. ... They’re going to require frack tanks or closed-loop systems. The closed-loop system actually saves the gas company money, but they have to do a little more work to do it.
There will be all kinds of [regulations]: taking care of the roads, putting the topsoil back after they get through drilling the wells.
The strict regulation of the Millennium Pipeline project is an example of what we can expect when gas drilling starts.
... The DEC has cost this [Millennium] pipeline probably hundreds of millions of dollars just because of all their environmental regulations.
I have been watching the DEC inspect my own property for months while the new pipeline was put in place.
... Every day DEC officials would arrive in unmarked cars, and all of a sudden everybody would be shouting, “Oh, here comes an inspector!”
... And the pipeline company themselves had their own environmental inspectors. ... I was standing out here one day, and a girl came up the road ... and she started yelling at a couple of the foremen because there was a clump of mud that had rolled down close to the water near Callicoon Creek they needed to get that out of there right away. These people are tough.
... If you’re afraid of the gas drilling, then go see a completed gas well. Ask the people who have one on their property, or ask the people who are next to somebody that has one on their property. Don’t just be negative about it, because this will help everybody out in this region. If you have even one acre of land, the gas that’s underneath you at a low price right now is potentially worth $337,000.
Q: What do you think of local governments’ response to gas drilling?
A: I think they are 100 percent entitled to be worried about their roads. None of these towns can afford to be rebuilding hundreds of miles of roads. They just can’t do it. ... This has to be taken care of.
... The moratoriums were all put in place so that the towns could catch up to what was actually happening and see what they needed to do. The moratoriums weren’t put into place to stop the drilling.
... From what I see, most of the towns are in favor of it. They just didn’t want to be caught off-guard.
At the county level ... most of the politicians are for it. But we have our county planner, Mr. [William] Pammer, who seems to be playing both sides of the fence, or is actually against it. He needs to stay neutral.
... I think most people are on board with it. It’s just that there are questions that have to be asked, and there are questions that have to be answered.
Q: So what’s the future hold, in your opinion?
A: I just don’t see New York State not letting it happen, because the state has piled up billions of dollars worth of debt.
... At this point, we are composing a letter to send to the DEC to tell them our concerns about what should be done. ... I think we should know what fracking chemicals are being used.
... They [gas companies] are coming back after the first of the year. Things are going to pick up as far as the leasing goes, because Chesapeake has a pocketful of money now since they sold a 32.5 percent interest in their Marcellus Shale holdings for $5,700 an acre to Statoil Hydro, which is a major international oil and gas company.
... Right now, across the [Delaware] river they’ve already come back to the table and restarted negotiations.
All these companies are tough negotiators, and I think that is just to try and show us who’s boss. But it comes down to [the fact that] we have the gas. We have the property. We will control this. It is our land.
Once they start drilling and they hit gas which they’re going to, because it’s a blanket layer of shale under everybody the prices will skyrocket.