Arkansas: The Natural (Gas) State


Arkansas is beautiful. Mostly agricultural, it isn’t a state high in the pecking order of gross income, but it is beautiful. The norm is miles and miles of open land, peppered here and there with ranches and small towns. An east/west highway cuts through the center of the state with Little Rock in the exact middle, with a new, incomplete north/south highway in the works. The rest of the state is a web of 2-lane roads connecting the small towns together and making for some gorgeous Sunday drive excursions.

Or, I should say, that’s the way it was. Since 2008, hundreds of natural gas wells and pipelines have ripped across the landscape along the Fayetteville Shale Play so painfully that it’s like a bad case of moles through a manicured lawn. Using a technique called hydrolic fracturing, or “fracking,” heavy water is forced into the ground to break apart shale so that it releases natural gas which requires an army of tanker trucks that haul the water in and the spent water out to drain ponds. Each well comes with it’s own “gathering” pipeline that connects to the main pipeline, with each natural gas company putting in their own main pipeline to move the gas to market out of the state.

The drilling phase of each of these wells is incredibly loud and from start to finish. It’s around-the-clock noise, not only from the drilling but the army of tanker trucks that stream in and out of the well site on a constant basis. Thankfully, a lot of the wells are now sitting idle since the price of natural gas is down, but when actively pumping gas, the noise is deafening.

It’s ironic. A proposal was heard during the current legislative session to change the tag line for the state from “Arkansas, the Natural State” to something else entirely, but was scrapped. Also voted down were the bills aimed to increase the severance tax gas companies pay the state. You see, the great majority of the roads in Arkansas were not built to sustain heavy truck traffic, so instead of requiring those responsible for destroying the state’s infrastructure to pay up, they plan to add a five cent per gallon tax on diesel.  It seems it is far more important to pander to the likes of the gas companies than it is to serve the people that live here.

The argument is that these gas companies brought jobs to the state, and in so doing, shielded the state from the brunt of the recession. At first, it did.

At first. The natural gas companies went door-to-door soliciting drill and mineral rights leases from property owners. This was a big deal for a state with a median income of $27,000 per year and an even bigger deal for struggling livestock ranchers and chicken farmers. The natural gas industry will be alive and well and generating income for the state for at least 50 years, they said. One natural gas company donated money to small towns to buy 4th of July fireworks and one city’s new annual downtown celebration. They even paid the county for half the cost of road repairs. Oh, the sunshine was pumped in fervor and all the local politicians fell for it hook, line and sinker.

But, as rosy as the faux picture was painted, it began to get ragged around the edges quickly. Those small town fireworks lasted one year only and the downtown celebration lasted two years. Land owners organized when they learned that their royalties wouldn’t be anything more than a few bucks per month and taxed to the gills. Horror stories of destroyed property became the norm and so did the disenchantment when trucks ran folks off the roads and even killed two children.

At first, the jobs brought in were great in that they paid well. It wasn’t long before one politician said out loud that Arkansans were just lazy and didn’t want to work as his reasoning why gas companies brought in out-of-state workers. He didn’t mention that workers are required to put in 80 to 100 hours a week with no time off allowed, no overtime and no per dium paid. Truck drivers were told they would be fired on the spot if they only drove DoT hours or complained about the bald tires, failing brakes and blown headlights on rarely maintained rigs. If you get hurt on the job, you’re fired. If you’re late, you’re fired. If your wife goes into labor and you want to be there for the birth of your child, you’re fired.

It appears to have come to a screeching halt. One major natural gas company just sold all its interests in the Fayetteville Shale play to an Australian company. Of all the hundred and some odd drills in my county alone, I think only 5 are active now. Disposal wells in the next county over were shut down since they seemed to be the cause of a string of earthquakes. Is it the end, or is it a lull?

I am confused. Arkansas-the-natural-state is not something to be protected or even considered when it comes to money in a few choice, chosen few, pockets. If the natural gas companies have to pay to rip the natural gas from the ground, then they will leave and take that money with them. Since that money only benefits a chosen few, I say let them go.

This could have worked out well for the state. If the gas companies had been honest, if they had cleaned up behind themselves, if they paid for the damages they caused, if they didn’t abuse the people and the land, it could have been a good industry for the state.

Yes, let them go. The beautiful land and its people have been abused and exploited enough. Let Arkansas be the natural state again.
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