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In small-town Louisiana, the natural gas boom is paying a lot of bills
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Every Tuesday at 2 p.m., a group of women meets at the 4C Coffee House in Grand Cane, Louisiana.
The village in DeSoto Parish is about half an hour south of the city of Shreveport and has a population of 242. Grand Cane’s mayor, Marsha Richardson, is in her 80s and sort of presides over the group.
“When I was 8 years old, my dad came out of the service. And he did not want to be anywhere around a lot of people. And he found Grand Cane. And there weren’t a lot of people here,” she said.
Her dad bought some land he could farm. “Well, in the ’40s, when we first moved here, it was cotton,” she said. “And then dairy farming took over.”
According to Richardson, at one point, there were over 100 family-owned dairy farms in the area. There are now none. In the 1980s, the federal government started buying out farmers here, and a lot of them left town.
“All of this was, I call it ‘forgotten land,’” she said.
Forgotten until about 15 years ago when oil and gas companies decided it was worth their while to drill into the Haynesville Shale that’s about 10,000 feet beneath the town. Landmen started knocking on doors and offering big paydays in exchange for the right to drill on people’s land.
“It was a big boost for individuals and for the community because we had acreage and you leased it and got money,” Richardson said. “I called it ‘free money.’ We didn’t earn it, we just received it.”
The village leased some of its land and used the money to update its water and drainage system; the local economy bounced back.
“Right now is the first time in my entire life that I’ve seen every business on the street occupied, every single one,” John Franklin said as he sipped a flavored iced tea drink a few chairs down from the women’s group meeting. His family has owned land in DeSoto Parish for six generations.
“I’m 56 years old, it’s never happened in my life. Never,” Franklin said.
In an area where the median household income is just over $25,000, many local landowners who signed away their mineral rights got five- and six-figure checks upfront.
On top of that, every month, many get checks for the gas extracted. In Franklin’s case, that adds up to more than he makes from the cattle and timber he sells. This year’s spike in gas prices means he’s earning even more.
Oil and gas companies are scrambling to buy up even more mineral rights in DeSoto Parish.
“I think today we are in a period of enthusiasm with high prices for natural gas,” said Brad Williams, president of Spitfire Energy Advisors in Houston. “Producers see that, lenders and investors see that.”
Williams said natural gas prices are up, in part, due to demand from overseas, as countries move away from coal and oil to generate electricity.
“The World Bank is refusing to finance new coal projects,” he said. “They will finance a natural gas power generation project.”
U.S. producers are aiming to supply that demand by exporting liquefied natural gas, or LNG.
“Vietnam canceled, like, 20 coal units and is now looking at replacing those with natural gas power generation,” Williams said. “Well, that LNG is going to come from someplace.”
Some of it from DeSoto Parish. But for all the money the gas boom has brought to small towns like Grand Cane, it’s come at a cost.
“Although many of these companies have developed good protocols for fracking, there are cases in which there’s been significant environmental damage,” said Sally Fleming, a lawyer who has filed multiple class-action lawsuits against oil and gas companies — including in DeSoto Parish, where one fracking accident released benzine into the water table.
But Fleming has also sold mineral rights on some of her own land.
“As a person who is receiving money that I didn’t earn, you know, I’m very grateful for it,” she said. “And if we’re responsibly producing natural gas and making sure that there are no fugitive emissions and not having a fracking accident like we have in DeSoto, I think there’s some significant potential there.”
Grand Cane Mayor Marsha Richardson isn’t worried about the oil and gas industry degrading the environment. She has active oil and gas leases on the land her father left her.
“In our area, the companies that have had ‘em have really handled whatever I call ‘the byproduct’ very well,” she said. “We’ve not suffered here at all. And people fuss and holler about the noise. But it was kind of like back when we were in the dairy business, and they talked about the smell. It just smelled like money to me. And all that cracking noise sounds like money to me, too.”
Richardson said the people working on these newly drilled rigs spend a lot of money at local businesses. And with the next round of cash from the village’s leases, she’s hoping to update Grand Cane’s sewer system.
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