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MIT Web Tools Help Small Landowners Navigate Gas Leasing Frenzy

Online technologies developed at MIT's Center for Future Civic Media in 2008, in the midst of the Marcellus fracking boom, are gaining users

By Lisa Song, SolveClimate News

May 1, 2011

In early 2009, ExtrAct launched its first in a trio of tools the , which allows people to post critiques of landmen online.

"We heard stories of landmen using certain tactics to get people to sign faster," says Christina Xu, former project director of ExtrAct, claiming that some landowners ended up signing bad leases. "By the time people realized the consequences, the landmen were long gone," making it hard to track them down.

"ExtrAct creates a network of stories in the public eye," Xu says.

She compares it to eating at a restaurant: When you're dining out, you feel entitled to good service. If you don't get it, you can post an online review that is unflattering for the restaurant. Similarly, Landman Report Card users rate individual landmen based on their honesty and knowledge.

Many landmen receive some form of positive feedback. Knowledgeable. Forthright about development plans. Others are tagged with a slew of critiques. Unethical business practices. Misinformation. Unavailable for contact.

Simona Perry is an environmental sociologist who studies how rural landowners make decisions about their property. She has spent the past two years in eastern Pennsylvania and has seen some unsavory tactics up close, including what she calls "playing the patriotism card."

"A landman might say, 'You're being un-American if you don't sign this.' They use patriotic rhetoric about foreign oil." It's a tactic that works well in the region, says Perry, because the people tend to be conservative and Republican, and many serve in the military.

Perry, who is a postdoctoral research fellow at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., now works to spread awareness about the Landman Report Card, even to those who have already leased their acreage. "A lease doesn't mean landmen won't come to your door," she says. "They still come around getting people to sign for pipelines and other agreements. So [ExtrAct] is still helpful."

A Wikipedia of Gas Wells

Part two of ExtrAct, the , was released in early 2010. The simple website posts news articles onto a map of the United States, creating a database of stories by location.

It allows people to find out what's happening in other parts of the country, says Tara Meixsell, a western Colorado activist, and "to really understand they're not alone."

But for veteran activists like Meixsell, ExtrAct's most useful feature is , released in November. So far, the website has information on every individual gas well in five states, listing GPS coordinates and well operators. ExtrAct hopes to expand WellWatch to every gas well in the country.

WellWatch runs on a Wikipedia interface. Each well has its own wiki page where users can post pictures, comments or complaints.

A search of recent notes turns up the following: One Colorado landowner reports body rashes and breathing problems. In Pennsylvania, someone is woken by loud drilling at 3:00 AM on a Sunday morning. Other complaints range from "odors" to "dead chickens" to "discolored and stinking water in the house."

The site has just 130 registered users. Between March 10 and April 16, it garnered 110,000 page views. Even with its limited use, Csikszentmihályi has seen a lot of customization as users create wiki pages for their counties and activist groups. "I think the power will grow as more people start using it."

WellWatch is much easier to navigate than the official state databases, says Meixsell, and allows users to compare state-by-state trends like never before.

Technology Divide

My property rights or yours?

If our national, state and local policy is to allow an industrial process to occur in a way that damages the property and health of citizens, then those citizens should be compensated by the industry—and maybe policy-makers—for their losses.  If you do not have drinkable water on your property you can't sell it.  For average people, our property is our life's investment, and if you lose the value of your property or your health, you lose everything. Gas industry activity is creating a new refugee class across our nation, only these refugees have little choice but to stay in their ruined homes. 

Much like eminent domain was used during WWII to build steel mills in the interest of national security, if we as a country choose to buy the gas lobby's claims that we need this "safe" "transition" fuel for our energy security, then do the right thing and allow those whose health and property value will be destroyed to move away and be compensated at market value for their loss. Then the gas companies can be free to destroy—I mean,develop—that land, and their supporters left behind can live with the results, or move out too if necessary, with their newfound riches.

Further ado about nothing

On the same subject,  from the MIT link which is described above as

Part two of ExtrAct, the , was released in early 2010. The simple website posts news articles onto a map of the United States, creating a database of stories by location.

It allows people to find out what's happening in other parts of the country, says Tara Meixsell, a western Colorado activist, and "to really understand they're not alone."

Yet the lead story

Is about

1.  California:  Not home to one single shale gas well

2.  It's about oil.  Not gas

3.  And what is this shocking story?  Forty, count 'em, four zero gallons of oil were spilled.  That's awful.  What an environmental catastrophe!  Right up there with the Exxon Valdez for sure.  Would I want that to happen in my neighborhood? Of course not.  But I wouldn't want to spill forty gallons of milk either and I'm sure I've done that over the years.

MIT should read their own stuff on shale gas instead of confusing molehills with catastrophe.

“Much has been said about natural gas as a bridge to a low-carbon future, with little underlying analysis to back up this contention.  The analysis in this study provides the confirmation — natural gas truly is a bridge to a low-carbon future,” said MITEI Director Ernest J. Moniz in introducing the report. 

I'm not saying that accidents don't and even will, happen.  But what we need more than anything is some perspective and some rationality and a little less gullibility and emotion mongering. 

Sullivan County Gas

I guess MIT missed this story from Sullivan County about gas 


Could all the hubbub about gas drilling in Sullivan County be much ado about nothing?

The geologist who first calculated the enormous amount of natural gas in the Marcellus shale — part of which sits beneath Sullivan — sure thinks so.

"It's not going to happen. Sullivan is completely off the table. No one has to get excited about contaminated New York City drinking water," says Terry Engelder, Penn State professor of geosciences in the university's Appalachian Basin Black Shales Group.


So not only is there nothing to fear about shale gas,  there is nothing to fear about it anyway.


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