One of the most disingenuous arguments of the natural gas opposition is that development constitutes industrialization. It preserves open space by giving farmers and landowners a means of sustaining it.
Nothing will do more to save the farm and preserve open space than natural gas drilling. It is the single most effective tool available for protecting the rural character valued by all who live here, because it rewards landowners for holding onto property and gives them the means to do so. All the government programs combined will not protect as much farm land as natural gas.
Vacant farm land in upstate New York typically generates an annual real property tax bill of $6-8 per acre, meaning that just holding onto 150 acres of farm fields costs about $900-1,200 year in taxes before considering taxes on improvements, insurance and other operating costs or the opportunity costs involved, all of which can be considerable. Indeed, a 2011 Cornell study of 190 New York dairy farms found they paid an average of over $30,000 each per year in real property taxes (see Table 4).
The same Cornell study found farmers with less than 110 cows had negative labor and management income for three of the last five years and they earned nothing on their equity, indicating the old saying – “the quickest way for a farmer to become a millionaire is to start with $2 million” – is, sadly, all too true.
It is ever more difficult for our farmers to stay on the farm and unless they find additional ways to produce income from that farm, it will inevitably disappear, despite whatever heroic efforts we make to save it with this or that program. Ag assessments, conservation easements and agricultural zoning don’t help when you still have to pay to farm.
Natural gas is the obvious answer, not only because it offers tremendous income potential but also due to its incredibly small footprint and compatibility with agriculture. The newest approaches to shale gas development provide for units as large as 1,280 acres (two square miles) with all wells for each unit being drilled on a single pad of five to six acres in size. Even after allowing for an access road of three-fourths mile in length to reach the pad, this amounts to total land disturbance of but eight acres, or six-tenths of one percent of the land.
Putting this in perspective, a typical home on a three-acre lot will, with driveway and lawn included, disturb a minimum of 5-10% of the land. A commercial or industrial enterprise will often cover more than 50% and is seldom allowed less than that by zoning.
Nothing has so little impact on the land we treasure as a finished gas well. You can drive through the beautiful Finger Lakes region and numerous other farming areas and see them everywhere in the middle of farm fields. Anyone serious about farmland and open space protection understands this source of additional income is critical to the effort. Natural gas will save the farm – it’s that simple.