Fracking arrives in Amish Country

Living on Earth

A Chesapeake rig on the horizon near Kilgore, Ohio, where about 50 Amish families live. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

Editor's Note: This story comes by way of Reid R. Frazier who reports for the Pennsylvania radio program The Allegheny Front.

It's an overcast day in Carroll County, Ohio, in the southeast corner of the state. An Amish farmer -- dark wide-brimmed hat, long beard, buttonless overcoat -- is at work on his hillside farm. He mans the seat of what he calls his “hired hand.” It's a skid steer loader, a kind of mini bulldozer he uses to haul huge piles of feed corn for his dairy farm.

He was able to buy the machine with a new source of money -- royalties. He leased his land for drilling a few years ago -- he only got $15 an acre back then. But two years ago, Chesapeake Energy drilled a well on a neighbor's farm. At around 7,000 feet down, the drill bit turned sideways, and went underneath his farm, following an oil- and gas-rich rock called the Utica shale. Soon after, he began receiving royalties. He won't say how much.

The farmer, following the beliefs of most Amish, wouldn't allow his name to be used for this story. He said he saw no problem leasing his land for drilling.

In his slightly German-sounding English, he said, "The land is there to be used. It's there to make food for people."

Many of his Amish neighbors feel the same way, and have leased their land for drilling. Rigs continue to migrate into this rural county -- there are no four-lane highways here, hardly any water and sewer services, and you can forget about cell phone coverage. Drilling represents a whole new source of income for the Amish, said Tom Wheaton, a Carroll County commissioner.

"I'd like to see how they're going to handle it because it makes a major change for peoples' lives," Wheaton said.

Wheaton relayed the story of one Amish dairyman who leased his farm. He'd been making $40,000 a year from farming.

"His first royalty check was for $80,000 -- in one month. So he immediately got out of the dairy, gave his farm to his son," Wheaton said.

There is worry this kind of money could have a corrupting influence. As the Amish farmer with the new skid steerer said, "The love of money is the root of all evil."

In the heart of the boom

Even if they didn't want it, Ohio law makes it very hard for landowners to keep the industry from drilling under their land, if their neighbors want to drill. In those cases, the state can mandate your land be included in a drilling unit.

Because of this, and simple economics, drilling is here to stay in Carroll County. It has the most oil and gas permits of any county in Ohio. Every day, it seems, more and more trucks hauling sand, water, and equipment crowd into the streets of the county seat, Carrollton.

It's music to the ears of Amy Rutledge. She's the director of the county's chamber of commerce and visitors bureau. It's been good for her, personally -- she was working part time before drilling started in 2011. Now she's full time.

"You see hope around here," Rutledge said. "It had gotten pretty depressed around here."

The small Amish community has grown since it started in the 1980s. Many Amish had come from Geauga County, east of Cleveland, which had experienced rapid growth in that decade.

"They're moving to areas that aren't quite as built up," she said.

"They're not luddites"

But in a twist of irony, these areas are now on top of some of the most lucrative rock formations in the East. One nearby well produced $30 million in oil and gas. To capture this bounty, companies like Chesapeake use hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. This is a process in which millions of gallons of pressurized water, sand and chemicals are forced down a well to break up the fuel-rich rock.

This is a 24-7 industrial process in which thousands of truck trips are needed to bring one well into production. It might seem at odds with Amish life. The Amish came to America beginning in the 18th century, and abstain from the technologies most Americans take for granted. But don't judge them by their horse and buggy, said David McConnell. He's an anthropologist at Wooster College in Ohio who's studied local Amish communities.

"We tend to idealize the Amish and see them as all natural and organic," McConnell said. "They are not Luddites, they are not stuck in the past with regard to technology use. The Amish believe that any decision about technology needs to be balanced with a discussion about the impacts of those technologies on community life."

Sometimes that means embracing new technology -- some Amish choose to plant genetically modified crops, and use pesticides. Amish generally don't feel a need to preserve the environment for the environment's sake, either. McConnell said this can be traced to a basic tenet of Amish life: religion.

"Most Amish would believe in a literal view of Genesis, they would believe that the Earth was made by God and that humans have dominion over the Earth," he said. "It's widely viewed that the Earth and its natural resources are there for the benefit of humans and they should be used."

Talk of the auction

Every Monday, Amish farmers mingle around huge stacks of hay at the Carroll County auction. The Amish at the auction have almost all leased land to oil and gas drillers. A young Amish carpenter said his father-in-law built a new barn with his lease money.

With drilling come environmental concerns. Oil and gas operations have been linked to cases of groundwater contamination around the country, though the industry maintains that if it's done right, no harm will come to underground aquifers.

One Amish man admits he'll be paying attention to his water when drilling starts on his land. "You worry about water. But what are we going to do about it?" He'd leased his land to Chesapeake, and said he would take the company at its word -- that if anything happened to his well, the company would come back in and fix it, or provide him with additional sources of water.

Wandering around the stacks of hay was Scio, Ohio, resident Kathy Garczyk. She's 'English' -- that's how the Amish refer to their non-Amish neighbors.

Garczyk works at a grocery store, and has been able to live a little more comfortably because of leases on her land. In conversations with her Amish neighbors, she's learned that oil and gas money has helped them out too.

"They're allowing this to go on because it benefits them too," she said. "They have bills just like we do and they've got mortgages and they're paying their bills and farming with the money they've received from the oil and gas business."

The Amish talk about not wanting to let the outside world in. That's why they live the way they do. But to keep that way of life, some are starting to let the energy industry, one very modern aspect of our outside world, onto their farms and into their communities. They are hoping it's a good gamble to take.

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