by Reid Frazier
August 11, 2012
The Marcellus shale gas boom has been changing the landscape of Pennsylvania for the last few years. But before every drill rig, well pad, or pipeline is constructed, another type of work must be completed. Paperwork.
A day was spent with someone at the forefront of one part of the drilling boom. This isn't someone who works mud and rock, but in paper, some of it very old.
Patrick Smith is a title abstractor. That means he spends most of his time trying to decipher legal descriptions of property. A lot of them sound like this.
"Start at the gum tree, thence by lands owned by Ira Fox, north seven degrees 30 minutes west, 96.52 rods," said Smith.
Smith works out of a small, sparely appointed office in Waynesburg, in Greene County, Pennsylvania.
"We have some post-its on the wall, some kind of fake laminate wood wall which is great. And a Cole Weston print of Big Sur," Smith explained.
The office isn't much to look at, but it is close to the county courthouse. Smith works for an attorney named Sean Cassidy. When an energy company leases gas rights from a property owner, they must first have an attorney like Cassidy verify who owns the gas rights to that property.
That's where Smith comes in. On the day I visited, Smith was starting a new project, for Chevron.
"Here's my new request sheet. This for Dunkard Township," said Smith.
The request has the name of three properties, which he first must find on a map. His job is to trace the ownership of oil and gas rights on those properties back to 1860. That's when the state's first gas wells were drilled. This way, Chevron knows it's paying royalties to the right person when they drill the well. To do this Smith has to do an extensive amount of detective work.
And much of that happens at the the county courthouse, which is our next stop.
On our walk over, trucks stream by carrying heavy equipment and pipeline. They're headed to drilling pads to harvest gas from the Marcellus shale through hydraulic fracturing. Smith, who may have done title searches on some of those wells, says he knows not everyone is happy about the drilling.
"For what you want to say about the potential ills of Marcellus shale drilling, at least my job is an example of someone who's gotten a little bit of security; and been able to find a job where I couldn't get a job with my degree," stated Smith.
An English major, Smith had been working in restaurants in between internships at literary magazines before he found this job. He's now pulling down a salary, and has a 401K.
"I'm grateful to have it, I don't know if I want to do it the rest of my life, but it's interesting work, and it definitely is stability," said Smith.
When we get to the courthouse--he pops into a variety of county offices. The assessors' office, the prothonotary, and then the archives of the orphans court, to look for a document.
"I checked this guy's Mr. Daniel Goodwin's will and he doesn't explicitly devise the interest in that tract to anyone so this is a good example of where this job can be a little bit maddening. No explanation for something," said Smith.
INTO THE DUNGEON
He's hit a dead end. There are lots of these in this job. Next, we head down a flight of stairs and through a series of hallways.
"We're in the basement after having traversed that labyrinth...Most people call this the dungeon," explained Smith.
There's an assortment of ledger books on shelves in the room. It looks like they've been here a while. "Ordinances for the borough of Graysville, we have sheriff's deeds book, we have some dust here," Smith continued.
The record he's looking for isn't here, so it's onto the recorder of deeds. He tries to hop on a computer terminal, but it's crowded with other abstractors doing oil and gas work. Men and women dressed casually, with yellow notepads at their side.
"No computers, so, I guess it's lunchtime probably," Smith said.
Lunch today is at Hot Rod's, a barbecue place. It's just filling up when we get there. In one booth sit a couple guys in navy blue fire retardant workshirts--the uniform for gas workers in the Marcellus.
As we wait for our lunch to come, Smith explains how he ended up here,"I knew they were hiring because of the Marcellus shale and I just kind of jumped on board and stayed on board, and doing it. I don't know."
Sometimes he does worry about the effect all this drilling will have on the landscape of the region. "But at the same time, people have needs in terms of life and work and money, so there's a balance between those things. There's no black and white necessarily and good guys and bad guys necessarily."
After lunch, we head back to the courthouse, and the Deed office is empty; everyone else is still out on their break. Smith hops on one of the terminals."
This is our computer system for our records from 1950 onward so we got the assessment information with record book so...punch em in...," said Smith.
He looks up property descriptions and prints them out. Five minutes later, Smith has a stack of printouts.
"Now we're going to go back to the office and make plots of legal description for the property and make sure everything goes to the tax map," continued Smith.
Back at his office, Smith plugs in coordinates into a mapping program on his laptop. "30 degrees east, 30 minutes west. 60.8 feet," said Smith.
He's re-interpreting all those legal descriptions on the deeds he printed out and making a map. The shape he's drawn on his computer doesn't quite match up the way it should. It looks like a bent paper clip. It should look more like a rectangle.
"Let's just doublecheck maybe we made a mistake," said Smith.
And mistakes come with the territory. That's why oil and gas companies will assign separate abstractors to do the exact same search. That means someone else will be making the same calculations, digging through the same documents that Smith is searching through today.
Maybe they already have. With the interest oil and gas companies have shown in the Marcellus and another shale deposit, the Utica--there'll be plenty of work for him.
"You've got the Marcellus shale and maybe someday the Utica shale. It's all going to be accounted for. Work keeps coming, I certainly can't complain about it," explained Smith.
As long as the work comes, Smith says, he'll keep coming back to the courthouse.