MIT Software Draws Bead
on Natural Gas Land Man
December 3, 2008
When representatives from natural gas companies knock on doors in rural
areas to try to lock up deals for drilling rights, they typically hold
most of the cards. They have the knowledge and experience about the
process, while the landowner often has little or no information about
what kinds of deals other residents in the area have agreed to -- or
about such issues as toxic chemicals that have been used in other
drilling sites and the health effects residents say they have
experienced. Currently, there is no easy way to find such information.
Csikszentmihályi and Science, Technology and Society graduate
A team of MIT researchers hopes to remedy that. They are developing a
suite of software applications to extract information from government
and corporate databases, along with input from citizens in the affected
areas, and make it all available in a clear, easy-to-navigate form.
"This is an experiment to see if we can develop new tools to help
communities self-organize," says Chris Csikszentmihályi, co-director of
MIT's Center for Future Civic Media.
Within the next few days, the MIT team will begin tests of one of their
new software tools, Landman Report Card (LRC), with small groups of
landowners in Colorado and Ohio, and eventually extend the tests to New
York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, all of which are experiencing new
booms in natural gas exploration.
"People often will sign the day the land man (company representative)
shows up at the door," Csikszentmihályi says. "There are lots of
negotiations that people can do, that they often don't know they can."
For example, while in some states they have no power to prevent drilling
on their land, they can negotiate such things as replacement of topsoil
or water quality monitoring once the drilling is done.
In rural Pennsylvania, some local Mennonite farmers have "negotiated for
incredibly cheap leases, below market price," says Sara Wylie, a
graduate student in the Science, Technology, and Society Program who has
been co-directing the software project. "They can be victims of the fact
that they don't know the real value, and what the process is like."
LRC and the other tools in the suite aim to ameliorate some of the
information imbalances by recording existing data about the drilling
operations. Also, by gathering data from local people about their
experiences and health effects, the resulting database could become an
important tool for government regulators and public health officials.
Now, the experiences of people living near the wells "are not being
captured anywhere," Csikszentmihályi says. "By recording it, each
landowner's data will then help other people."
Making information accessible could make a big difference. For example,
before signing a lease to allow drilling for natural gas on their land,
the owners might want to know that natural gas drilling operations are
allowed to pump millions of gallons of fluid into the ground to fracture
the rock and help force the gas out. The chemical composition and
ultimate disposal of these fluids are largely unregulated, and have been
the subject of lawsuits claiming adverse health effects in people who
live near drilling sites. And the quantities involved are enormous: Each
of the thousands of wells in just one state is legally allowed to use a
greater volume of unregulated chemicals than the total amount dumped at
the infamous Love Canal superfund site, Csikszentmihályi says.
of the state laws governing oil and gas focus on technical issues
related to extraction, while providing few protections for those who
must live with the noise, noxious fumes, waste pits, contamination and
other impacts associated with oil and gas production," says Lisa Sumi,
an environmental consultant who has worked with the nonprofit Oil and
Gas Accountability Project. "Because of this technical focus,
governments have not done a good job of tracking the environmental and
health impacts associated with oil and gas development."
Even basic information that is available is often so hard to extract
from government web sites that it is essentially useless to the
landowners. For example, to find the locations of existing wells can
require typing in the township, section and range designations of a
given location -- details the landowners often don't know. Instead, "we
want to be able to let a person type in their address, and have all the
details about drill sites near their home that industry has and more."