The Landman Cometh

Innovation Trail and other New York outlets help readers prepare for fracking prospectors

Knock, knock. Who’s there? It’s the “landman,” offering quick cash to extract natural gas on your property using a technique called hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking.” Please take a look at this colorful brochure.

It’s a scene that has played out above gas-rich shale formations across the United States. Long before the environmental and public health risks of fracking attracted widespread media attention, thousands signed over their land, a decision some are trying to take back. In the last year, the farmlands of upstate New York have been a particular hotbed for debate.

The state’s de facto ban on fracking, implemented in 2008, has curtailed drilling while the Department of Environmental Conservation researches fracking’s pros and cons. Arguments, and coverage, have intensified as the department has moved closer to a decision, recently inviting public input on the proposed regulations.

For the startup news website Innovation Trail, the timing was right to make fracking a primary focus in its reporting. The site, a collaboration between five upstate public radio stations, launched in 2010, just as the subject was taking off in the New York media. Rachel Ward, Innovation Trail’s editor, says its mission is to cover emerging local industries like biotech, information technology, and energy. One of the site’s first energy stories informed readers that it was “gearing up to do some reporting about the macro and microeconomic effects of gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale.” The rest was history.

“We didn’t realize how much we were going to wind up covering fracking,” says Ward. “But we quickly understood how important of an issue it was and how much people care about it.”

Hydraulic fracturing uses a combination of sand, chemicals, and water to break up rock, releasing the natural gas inside. It promises jobs for some and a payday for landowners (often struggling farmers). But opponents cite the alleged environmental fallout: contaminated water, which has been confirmed in parts of Pennsylvania and upstate New York where the method has been used.

The fracking story is fraught with legalities and emotion. The New York Times reported in September that at least 400 New York leaseholders are suing the gas companies they signed with. The reasons landowners are trying to get these leases nullified vary. Some want to renegotiate for more money, some say they changed their minds when they learned more about the risks, and others say they were misled by charming “land men” and assurances about fracking’s safety. [Update: The New York Times published a long review of the activities of landmen nationwide in a front page article published November 2 entitled, “Learning Too Late of Perils in Gas Well Leases.”]

Why were people caught so off-guard? A review of New York media news archives using the search tool LexisNexis shows little coverage of hydraulic fracturing in the state prior to late 2008 and early 2009. Coverage picked up in 2010, when smaller state newspapers started covering the basic arguments for and against the process. But the practical, news-you-can-use about applicable regulations and contract negotiations wasn’t there when prospectors and landowners were drawing up leases.

Take, for example, the Oneida Daily Dispatch, which published two stories about fracking in 2009, both from the Associated Press. One focused on a Pennsylvania company that was forced to stop drilling, the other about New York issuing gas drilling rules, but there was no local focus. At Binghamton’s Press & Sun-Bulletin, six stories ran in 2008, three of which were editorials. At the Star Gazette in Elmira, New York, there were three mentions of hydraulic fracturing at the tail end of 2008. Auburn’s The Citizen ran nine stories about fracking between 2008 and 2010, five were from the AP, and three written by its staff. Likewise, fracking coverage flowed out at a trickle in 2008 at the Ithaca Journal, Plattsburgh’s Press-Republican, and Geneva’s Finger Lakes Times, until editors opened the tap in 2010.

Issues involving “land men,” who show up at people’s houses with mineral rights contracts in hand, is easier to find in the mainstream press than in the smaller local papers, whose readers were most affected. In the Ithaca Journal, the first story that discussed “land men” appears in 2007, but the term wasn’t used again until an article that appeared in June 2011. In Oneonta’s Daily Star, the first story with the term “landman” appeared in July 2010 “landmen” appeared in their reporting twice in 2008 and once in 2009. While both papers have done a good job covering hydraulic fracturing overall, investigations of the predatory leasing that beguiled so many were missing in the early reporting.

An analysis using the search engine Factiva shows that stories about fracking in New York media have doubled between the first half and second half of this year, due largely to the myriad protests and hearings happening around the state.

The collaborative, group effort behind Innovation Trail puts it in a unique position to cull useful local reporting from around the state. Led by WXXI, a public radio station in Rochester, the project has partnerships with WNED in Buffalo, WRVO in Oswego, WSKG in Binghamton, and WMHT in Schenectady. An August story from the collective clued into the eleventh hour efforts—including MIT’s Landman Report Card—to prepare local citizens to deal with prospectors, quoting a Pennsylvania woman advising New Yorkers to “get smart before the landmen come knocking.”

But they’ve been knocking for some time already, and they play tough. In another Innovation Trail story from August, a New York family described being approached by an aggressive landman in 2007 that wanted to drill on the golf course they owned. After the family turned down the offer, he walked away saying, “I’ll get it anyway.” He was referring to a New York state law called “compulsory integration” where companies could force landowners to accept drilling on their land if 60 percent of the surrounding property was already leased to drill. A follow up article explained how use of the law could grow if a de facto ban on hydraulic fracturing in New York is lifted. Yet another described the Cortland county clerk’s efforts to fight abusive leasing practices.

Ward says Innovation Trail is trying to bring a local voice to the community about fracking. “In the southern tier, where there are already a lot of leases signed, it’s in the paper almost everyday,” she says. “But a lot of times the way it’s covered in the paper is through an AP story about fracking in Pennsylvania, since that’s where it’s been happening on a widespread basis.” As one moves north into New York, the coverage dwindles. “The thing is—if we don’t do it, there aren’t a lot of outlets who will.”

Local coverage has been strong this fall, with New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) holding public forums in preparation for writing the laws that will eventually regulate fracking in New York. Meetings have taken place in Binghamton, Dansville, Loch Sheldrake, and New York City, at which thousands showed up and hundreds spoke, mostly against fracking.

Innovation Trail’s latest effort, in collaboration with WMHT’s New York NOW, asks readers and listeners to submit questions via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, e-mail, and the comments section of its website, which it will pose to DEC Commissioner Joe Martens during a broadcast on December 9.

The DEC is also asking for direct input on proposed regulations. At the New York City hearing yesterday, the department said it was extending the public comment period another month, until January 11. The announcement was seen as a small victory, and it gives local news outlets an opportunity to further educate their constituents and engage them in the regulatory process.

The hope, of course, is that in the future the landman’s first appearance on people’s doorsteps comes via the morning paper.

Correction: We originally reported that the first Oneonta Daily Star story to mention “landman” was in July 2010. In fact, the term “landmen” actually first appeared in May 2008. The relevant sentence has been corrected. CJR regrets the error.

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Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR. Tags: , , , ,