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Gas money may not ripen for farmers

GRANTSVILLE — At the highest point atop his 500 acres, Delvin E. Mast points across the valley, where — six generations ago — his family first started farming in Garrett County.

Delvin E. Mast

“I want to show you what we have, and why we don’t want to mess it up,” Mast says, beaming with pride as he explains that he doesn’t regret spending 30 years as a farmer.

But Mast, now 68 years old, has 12 grandchildren, and he says it wouldn’t bother him one bit if none of them grew up to be farmers, as two of his children already have.

So, in 2007, Mast leased his 500 acres to a natural gas company, giving permission to Tulsa, Okla.-based Samson Resources Co. to use hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling to extract gas from the Marcellus Shale rock formation that lies a mile or more beneath his land.

Already a successful Garrett County businessman, Mast says he saw an opportunity to squirrel away money for college tuition should any of those 12 grandchildren decide to go that route. It’s the kind of money a Western Maryland dairy farmer — even a successful one — probably couldn’t afford.

“If they drilled, it wouldn’t change my lifestyle a bit,” Mast said. But he knows it could change his family’s.

But with an executive order placing a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — in Maryland until August 2014, Samson appears likely to let Mast’s lease expire when it runs out later this year.

The farmer already declined to allow the company to hold the property past the lease’s expiration — but stop making per-acre payments — until drilling begins.

Mast thinks he can get a better deal than the $25-an-acre and 12.5 percent royalty on gas production that he would earn under terms of the current lease, so he’s happy to renegotiate with Samson or another company.

He’s just not sure he’ll get the chance.

“I’m really not disappointed that the lease is terminating,” Mast said. “But I do wish Maryland would get their act together.”

Hundreds of large property owners across Western Maryland have a story similar to Masts’, area elected officials say. Those that want natural gas drilling to happen on their property are farmers who recognize a chance to improve their financial lot, keep the farm in the family and make a better economic future for children and grandchildren.

In addition to making money, they’ll save some, because many natural gas leases in Western Maryland entitle the landowners to free natural gas.

But O’Malley’s moratorium and the objections of skeptics who fear potential environmental and property value repercussions related to drilling have — at minimum — delayed that dream.

Paul Roberts, owner of Deep Creek Cellars in Friendsville, is one Western Marylander who hopes drilling never happens. He said the impact of drilling and operating a well on a neighbor’s property — frequent construction traffic would have driven up and down a steep country road that runs adjacent to Roberts’ business — would hurt his property value and his business.

He also has concerns about fracking’s safety. The practice has been linked to earthquakes and water supply contamination as locally as Pennsylvania. Mike Tidwell, executive director of advocacy group Chesapeake Climate Action Network, says some research links fracking to global warming, too, because methane gas could be released into the atmosphere as part of the drilling process.

Questions surrounding the methods’ safety have put a stop to drilling activity in Garrett and Allegany counties before it ever got started. The Maryland Department of the Environment has never granted a permit for companies to drill and now cannot until O’Malley’s executive order expires or safety studies are completed.

Olen Beitzel, president of Beitzel Corp., an industrial construction and maintenance company in Accident, says gas companies may still have interest in Maryland in the long term. But not the short term.

“If and when the natural gas price goes up, there might be an interest,” Beitzel said. “It’ll add to their portfolio.”

Meanwhile, Mast says he’s trying to be patient. Looking over his corn, alfalfa and soybeans and down into the hamlet of Grantsville below, the mountain farmer admits he wants the gas money, but only if the drilling is done safely.

“We want state regulations that say ‘you want it done right,’” he said.