By ERICH SCHWARTZEL
Late last year, representatives from one of the world’s largest energy companies came to the home of Lydia and Sam Mast. The company was planning to drill a gas well on an adjacent property and needed to test the Masts’ water.
By November, the access road had been paved and the rig built, drilling day and night into the shale formation that lies thousands of feet below the Masts’ seven acres in Lawrence County.
“That was the first I knew there was a company called Chevron,” said Mast.
The Masts and many of their neighbors are Amish, part of a community that has lived in white homes along New Wilmington’s back roads for decades. They shun technology and embrace a family-based, agrarian lifestyle, even though many can’t afford to farm anymore and instead support their families with construction businesses and shops run out of their homes.
A new source of money, however, has come to the Amish of western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio.
They own some of the most coveted land in the nation, and rapid-fire leasing by gas companies is creating millionaires among them — and disturbing communities worried about greed and envy.
Though many wells have yet to be drilled, the signing bonuses that come with leasing land are life-changing sums. Experts say the gas drilling could subsidize a farming career that hasn’t been economically viable for the Amish for a long time — a technological means to an agrarian end.
One sect in the news, the Mullet community of Bergholz, Ohio, uses a $3.5 million windfall from gas leases to pay for basic living expenses and legal bills while its leaders serve jail time for high-profile beard-cutting practices that led to hate crime convictions.
The hydraulic fracturing technology unlocking the oil and gas reserves under their land is the latest energy activity to enter the Amish community, which has long allowed shallow well drilling and strip mining. As a result, Amish homesteads are joining English landowner groups and fielding appearances from landmen eager for a signature, all surprised participants watching their tiny, tight-knit communities become mini-boom towns.
The gushers in Carroll County, Ohio, are so famous they make cameos in investor reports. Chesapeake Energy, the main driller in the county, cites production numbers in pitches to shareholders.
Rex Energy has a permanent storefront next to a hearing aid repair shop in the town square. Farmers drive Bentleys. The local Ponderosa is said to be the chain’s third-most-popular franchise in all of Ohio.
Officials have even discussed installing a buggy lane on the roads to help horses keep a distance from the new truck traffic.