When the landmen arrived in Fort Worth in 2007, they didn’t promise that every home owner would make a killing from leasing his or her land for natural gas exploration. But they did promise that every house would be getting free mailbox money monthly for 30 to 50 years, maybe a couple of hundred bucks per home, even if that home sat on only a 6,000-square-foot plot.
Over the next several years, the wells that those landmen dreamed about were put in, and when the price of natural gas was high, above $10 per 1,000 cubic feet or 1 million British Thermal Units, there actually was some mailbox money. Not quite as high as the landmen projected — some people with 6,000-foot plots received only a $100 check every two years or so — but for folks with an acre or more, the money arrived monthly.
That money has nearly stopped arriving for most people. Part of that is due to the current price of natural gas, which has dropped by 80 percent during the past several years, though that alone cannot explain the much more dramatic drop in royalty monies.
So what happened?
“Well, basically the wells ran dry,” explained a gas company insider who did not want his name used. “In the Barnett Shale, you have a great first year with a well. The second-year production drops by half. The third year, it drops by half again, and from there, which is 25 percent of initial production, it just peters out over the next several years.”
In other words, by the time most gas wells in the Barnett Shale became as old as a kindergartener, the gas nearly stopped flowing, turning the 30-50-year-plan into about five years.
“I was told I would get $5,000 a month for 30 years on my half-share of the minerals on 42 acres,” said Sharon Wilson, who became a fierce opponent of natural gas drilling as the negatives involved with extraction methods became evident. Those include the use of poisons mixed with water to open the shale formations, leaking wells that poisoned ground water sources, enormous volumes of toxic gasses released into the air from nearly every completed well in the Barnett, the list goes on.
Wilson said her initial checks, which first came in 2010, were in the $1,000 range, but they have since dropped to $100 a month with some months not bringing any mailbox money at all.
“Once I found out about all the damage the drilling was doing,” she said, “I tried to warn people that they were trading away their serenity, their peace of mind, their environment for nothing, but the promises the industry made were hard for people to ignore.”
Harriet Irvy, a community activist, owns eight properties in Arlington that have a combined area of about 2.5 acres. She receives royalties from two wells, one drilled seven years ago, one six years ago.
“The first couple of years were good,” she said, “but it went downhill fast. Four years ago, that dropped to just $2,000-plus for the year, and last year that was down to $528. Now I don’t want to say I didn’t enjoy their money, but I don’t like them. I don’t like that the landmen promised royalties for 30 to 50 years, and that’s not happening. I don’t like the pollution from the wells. The gas companies just never cared about people or their health.”
Calvin Tillman, the former mayor of DISH, the very epicenter of the Barnett Shale, said that it didn’t take long to discover that the amounts produced by a well in its first years were more than it would churn out for the rest of the well’s life.
“And people are left with nothing,” he said. “A number of people in DISH thought they could depend on that income, and lots of people are in trouble because of that.”
In DISH, not only has the money dried up but the concentration of wells and other gas equipment caused a large number of residents to have nosebleeds, headaches, and in some cases serious neurological disorders. Tillman moved his family out of DISH when his children began to get sick.
“The people still in DISH are left with a mess,” he said. “Those who bought into it and allowed wells to be drilled on their property now have worthless property because they’ve basically got a hazardous waste site there.”
Not everyone is upset. Cindy Vasquez, a spokesperson for the City of Fort Worth, noted that while royalties have dropped, “the city is still generating revenue due to the high amount of acreage that is leased.”
She added that all told, Fort Worth has generated $260 million from the gas industry, “money that goes to benefit capital projects and trusts.”
Fort Worth’s Don Young, who fought gas drilling in Fort Worth from the first day the landmen arrived, remembered former Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief — a huge booster of the industry — saying that the gas money would float everyone’s boat in town.
“And yet homelessness is up,” Young said. “We’ve lost thousands of acres of green space in the city, there’s been a dire effect on wildlife, we’ve had earthquakes, and we still have toxic gas escaping from all those wells. The gas drilling has really been a tragedy, to be honest.”
Neither Devon Energy, the biggest driller in the Barnett Shale, nor Ed Ireland, director of the industry-sponsored Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, would answer the question of whether the rapid decline in gas production was anticipated even while landmen were making their 30/50 promises.
Devon Energy did publish its 2015 Operations Report. In the section on the Barnett Shale, it was noted that the company had tested re-fracking 25 wells in 2015 with good result and that the company was poised to “restart [large-scale re-fracking] when conditions incentivize higher activity.”
Young was not surprised by Devon’s assessment. “I think the gas companies are all just going to hunker down and try to wait things out until the price of gas goes back up,” he said. “That would bring back more fracking and re-fracking than we had before. The whole thing is really ugly. They lied about the life of the wells, they lied about the impact they would have on Fort Worth, they lied about the mailbox money.”
Irvy agrees: “All I know,” she said, “is that the gas money is gone and the gas is gone, too.”