The following is a story that was published in Platts Gas Daily on Wednesday, November 21, 2012. It has been posted with their permission.
Two years ago, M. Denise Dennis stood before the Philadelphia City Council and proclaimed that horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing were “as dirty as coal mining.” She told the council, which was considering a drilling ban, that her home state was a fracking lab and “Pennsylvanians are the lab rats.”
Dennis’ remarks made her a key face and voice of the anti-drilling movement in the Marcellus Shale region. Even though she stood to make money off the regional exploration-and-production boom — her family farm sits atop the gas-rich Marcellus — Dennis continued to speak out against what she saw as an unwelcome, potentially hazardous invasion.
Earlier this month, Dennis took a step that has stunned many in her community, particularly those who advocated alongside her: she agreed to lease to Cabot Oil and Gas the 153-acre farm in Susquehanna County’s Brooklyn Township that has been in her family since the late 18th century.
The farm was built by her ancestors, free African Americans, and it is listed with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “There is no other African American family that has been able to retain ownership of its property for 200 years,” she said in an interview this week.
Dennis, a writer by profession, said she has undergone a metamorphosis that has been “long, complicated, thoughtful and involved an incredible amount of research on my part.”
She insists that her change of heart has little to do with money, even though she will earn royalties from future production. She and Cabot declined to disclose the terms of the lease.
Dennis explained that a year ago she met with and discussed at length drilling-related issues with a geophysicist who was an independent drilling contractor. “We had these very congenial arguments over a period of time,” she recalled.
He arranged meetings with officials from Cabot, one of the first movers in the Marcellus. “Cabot didn’t do a sales job on me,” she said. “I’m the one who said I would be willing to talk with them.”
She also talked with friends and neighbors and even the caretaker of the family farm. All of them had signed leases with drilling companies. “I heard the pros and cons. It took a lot of thought,” she said. “I made my decision with my eyes wide open.”
“I decided they were all good people who were doing their jobs in an industry that they care about, and I decided I should start approaching them that way,” Dennis said. “I believe that environmental people should start talking to the industry. I don’t think the industry goes out to destroy people’s property.”
Dennis, who is president of the Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust, said proceeds from the lease would provide seed money for the farm’s restoration. The oldest building on the site was badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy and needs stabilization, she said.
Cabot spokesman George Stark said in an email Tuesday that once Dennis “had a firm understanding of how our industry and Cabot specifically handles its operations in an environmentally sensitive manner, plans were made to have [her] meet with our CEO, Dan Dinges, who had expressed an interest in learning more about the cultural significance of the Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust.”
“It was at this meeting that both Cabot and Ms. Dennis fully understood the importance of the land and how both sides would respect it,” Stark said. “After this meeting, steps were taken to finalize a lease for her homestead.”
Stark said Cabot officials believe Dennis “has a unique and wonderful story to share about her heritage and just what makes the Dennis Farm Charitable Land Trust such an amazing acreage of land.”