Shale boom poses risk to lifestyle of Amish
BY ERICH SCHWARTZEL, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
PITTSBURGH -- Late last year, representatives from one of the world's largest energy companies came to the home of Lydia and Sam Mast. The company was planning to drill a gas well on an adjacent property and needed to test the Masts' water.
By November, the access road had been paved and the rig built, drilling day and night into the shale formation that lies thousands of feet below the Masts' seven acres in Lawrence County.
"That was the first I knew there was a company called Chevron," said Mast.
The Masts and many of their neighbors are Amish, part of a community that has lived in white homes along New Wilmington's back roads for decades. They shun technology and embrace a family-based, agrarian lifestyle, even though many can't afford to farm anymore and instead support their families with construction businesses and shops run out of their homes.
A new source of money, however, has come to the Amish of western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio.
They own some of the most coveted land in the nation, and rapid-fire leasing by gas companies is creating millionaires among them -- and disturbing communities worried about greed and envy.
Though many wells have yet to be drilled, the signing bonuses that come with leasing land are life-changing sums. Experts say the gas drilling could subsidize a farming career that hasn't been economically viable for the Amish for a long time -- a technological means to an agrarian end.
One sect in the news, the Mullet community of Bergholz, Ohio, uses a $3.5 million windfall from gas leases to pay for basic living expenses and legal bills while its leaders serve jail time for high-profile beard-cutting practices that led to hate crime convictions.
The hydraulic fracturing technology unlocking the oil and gas reserves under their land is the latest energy activity to enter the Amish community, which has long allowed shallow well drilling and strip mining. As a result, Amish homesteads are joining English landowner groups and fielding appearances from landmen eager for a signature, all surprised participants watching their tiny, tight-knit communities become mini-boom towns.
The gushers in Carroll County, Ohio, are so famous they make cameos in investor reports. Chesapeake Energy, the main driller in the county, cites production numbers in pitches to shareholders.
Carroll County has issued nearly 200 permits for drilling, almost three times more than any other county in Ohio.
"If this is a nine-inning baseball game, we've just finished up the national anthem," said Gary R. Harris, special project coordinator at the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce.
Rex Energy has a permanent storefront next to a hearing aid repair shop in the town square. Farmers drive Bentleys. The local Ponderosa is said to be the chain's third-most-popular franchise in all of Ohio.
Officials have even discussed installing a buggy lane on the roads to help horses keep a distance from the new truck traffic.
Amishman John Troyer lives about five miles from some of those gushers. He owns a construction business and his family runs a trade post that sells board games and paperbacks. In 2007, when shale drilling in Pennsylvania was scarce and in Ohio was nonexistent, he was approached about leasing his mineral rights.
It seemed like free money for parts of the land he wasn't even using. Troyer leased with Great Lakes Energy Partners for $10 an acre. He made $430 on the deal.
A couple of years later, he was building a house for a Pennsylvania man who was moving to Ohio. When they started talking about the shale drilling that had proliferated across the neighboring state, Troyer was astonished by what he heard.
"They were saying like $3,000 an acre for out there. I didn't believe him at all. Well, now it's just about doubled that here," he said.
A couple of years later, with the potential for the Utica Shale now known, neighbors in the community of about 100 Amish families have signed deals worth $2,500 an acre. Later, he heard at church about some netting nearly $6,000 an acre.
"In a way you kind of think you're getting ripped off," he said. His original lease was swapped by several firms and expired in 2012, but a clause renewed it automatically for another five years even though no drilling had begun.
Still, the boom that surrounds Troyer's 43 acres is so strong that it made it easier for him to accept the meager $430 he made from leasing his land.
Business at his construction company is strong, thanks in part to Carroll County residents who can now afford to build new houses. Even the traditionally slow winter months have seen an uptick in activity.
"There's a lot of work out there, and some of it is definitely because of the gas," he said.
Like many in the Amish community, Troyer owns a substantial plot of land with horses and chickens on it but doesn't make his money farming.
However, ask 10 Amish people what the ideal career is and nine will say working on a farm, said Erik Wesner, author of "Success Made Simple: An Inside Look at Why Amish Businesses Thrive." He also created www.AmishAmerica.com.
The percentage of Amish farmers who can earn a living off the land has plummeted, and alternative careers have their drawbacks: Construction takes the father away from the family, and tourism invites the English world in so freely.
Millions of dollars in leasing bonuses and royalty checks, though, could start to subsidize a return to that idealized, agrarian lifestyle, said Wesner. By allowing gas drilling on their property, farmers could return to working the land without the worry of profiting from it.
"The technological mix that the Amish accept is quite rational with the goals of what they hope to preserve in the community," he said.
Andy Byler of New Wilmington had three days to decide whether to join thousands of Amish and English property owners in the Mount Jackson Landowner Group. He leased his 90 acres for $2,750 per acre, using the money to pay off bills and the farm.
The rest of the money was invested with the American Equity Investment Life Holding Co. in Des Moines, chosen for its good interest rates and disaffiliation with the stock market.
"There's good and there's bad" with leasing, he said, pausing from readying cattle for the weekly New Wilmington livestock held on auction Mondays. He worries about the easy money, telling his four children, "You still need to go to work."
The community has discussed the temptations that could come with such cash.
"We've talked about that -- this isn't going to be good for everybody," said Troyer.
Many Amish farms in New Wilmington have shallow wells drilled decades ago by Atlas Energy; others have allowed electrical towers on their land. The liberalness of each community varies from sect to sect: Some Amish refuse to put plastic reflectors on their buggies, while others have participated in genetic testing.
"They wouldn't accept one of their own becoming a doctor, but they see the benefit of research," said Wesner. "They don't see the technology in itself as evil, but they would like to control the use of it because they are cautious of where it might lead if they accept it."