Preaching creation care in the land of fracking Story by Joey Butler, photos by Mike DuBose

ABOVE: A well pad for a hydraulically fractured gas well lies at the end of a gravel access road near Plum Run, W.Va. Aerial photography flight courtesy of SouthWings.

The Rev. Brad Bennett points to a patch on the snow-covered ground and says, “My spot’s right there.”

The “spot” is Bennett’s plot in a tiny cemetery on family farmland near Jane Lew, West Virginia, where he plans one day to rest in peace next to his grandparents, two uncles and an aunt. Of course, since the cemetery lies next to a fracking well pad, the interred may be the only ones getting any peace.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, pumps millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals underground to free natural gas from shale deposits. In addition to the commotion from the initial drilling, a steady stream of trucks travel to and from the well site, carrying pipes for the pipeline as well as all the materials used in the process.

West Virginia sits on the Marcellus Shale, a vast rock formation stretching from New York to Virginia and estimated to be the second-largest natural gas find in the world. The type of wells made to drill into the shale can have up to six lines running horizontally out of each one.

The Rev. Brad Bennett walks through the cemetery on his family's farm, just yards from the service pad for a hydraulically fractured gas well near Jane Lew, W.Va.
The Rev. Brad Bennett opens the gate for the small cemetery on his family's farm.

According to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, 3,513 horizontal well permits have been issued in the state since 2013. More than 600 miles of pipeline span the state.

Each side of Bennett’s family owns farmland with a well pad on it. His father’s side owns the mineral rights to their land, so they get regular royalty checks from the gas company. On the farm where the cemetery is located — owned by the Reeds, his mother’s side — someone else has the mineral rights. They only received a one-time payment for land use.

Mineral rights are complicated. Before mining grew in prominence, land deeds included the rights to any minerals beneath the surface. It became more common for mineral rights to be severed from surface rights, meaning that oil and gas companies could contract with someone owning mineral rights to build a well on a property even if another person owns the actual land. Companies are often able to force a sale through eminent domain against protests from the owner.

A well pad and holding pond for a hydraulically fractured gas well lie at the end of a gravel access road near Duckworth, W.Va. Aerial photography flight courtesy of SouthWings.

Emergency response and no trespassing signs line the road near a hydraulically fractured natural gas well outside West Finley, Pa.

A natural gas pipeline passes along a ridge where trees were cut to make way near Blandville, W.Va. The pipeline is buried beneath the strip of green grass that runs diagonally through the photo. Aerial photography flight courtesy of SouthWings.

Bennett understands both of the common stances on the issue. The short version is simple: If you get a steady check, fracking’s good. He sees the same divided opinions in the two churches he pastors, Central and Trinity United Methodist churches, both in Fairmont.

“I have folks who benefit from it and folks who are hurt by it,” he said. “I’m happy for the short-term gain for land owners. On the other side, it’s been disruptive to the land.”

He said the road the company constructed to accommodate traffic to the well pad on the Reed farm initially blocked access to the cemetery before they agreed to create a separate entrance.

The forested, rolling hills of the Rev. Brad Bennett's family land have been cleared and flattened to make way for a hydraulically fractured natural gas well.
The Rev. Brad Bennett discusses the benefits and environmental costs of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas while standing on the service pad for a well on his family land near Jane Lew, W.Va.

“What I’d need is certainty that the long-term problems, the companies will be responsible for. Based on history, that’s not gonna happen.”

Fracking’s effect on the environment is often defended by the jobs it brings, which are much needed in the state. Bennett is skeptical of this stance, since locals rarely have a shot at the high-paying technical jobs.

“They used to hire flag men on the road, which is a little above minimum wage, no benefits, contract work, or you might get to drive a water truck,” he said. “The good-paying career jobs were all folks that were brought from out of state.”

The Rev. Brad Bennett walks past storage tanks used for a hydraulically fractured gas well on his family's land.
Oil and gas extraction-related activities in West Virginia are shown on this map provided by FracTracker Alliance, a non-profit organization that studies, maps, and communicates the risks of oil and gas development.

West Virginia is sometimes referred to as an “extraction state” — outsiders profit from the natural resources while locals get little benefit.

“What we’re seeing is a recolonization of West Virginia in terms of out-of-state corporations,” said the Rev. Jeff Allen, a United Methodist pastor who serves as executive director of the West Virginia Council of Churches. “Those forces are pretty powerful and you have to be well organized to address those issues.”

The council advocates for issues like monitoring water quality, long-term health studies for residents living near wells and pushing for hiring skilled local workers. Allen feels the church can be an important public advocate.

The United Methodist Church’s Social Principles state, “All creation is the Lord’s, and we are responsible for the ways in which we use and abuse it.”

“The church has been energized over the past couple years, taking closer looks at these things and speaking out more,” Allen said. “How do you negotiate these things in your congregation? It’s not easy.”

Becky Crabtree dusts snow off the 1971 Ford Pinto she keeps in her sheep pasture as part of a protest display against the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which will carry hydraulically fractured natural gas across her land near Lindside, W.Va.

Becky Crabtree can attest that it’s not easy.

Crabtree and her husband, Roger, have watched a nearby pipeline divide members of the congregation at Lindside United Methodist Church, where they attend.

“The pipeline has disrupted the church, with people on both sides of the issue, and there’s nothing like a church fight,” she said.

The pipeline runs along a hill right behind the church. At one point, construction caused a mudslide that flooded the church kitchen. The gas company’s insurance paid for a cleaner, but only for a day. Church members wound up doing most of the work.

Pipes that will carry hydraulically fractured natural gas rest in a cleared right of way behind Lindside (W.Va.) United Methodist Church. During construction there was a mudslide and the church kitchen was flooded.

Crabtree, who opposes the pipeline, said she’s in the minority.

“I lost my innocence in this fight. I’ve lost some friends, people I’ve known 30 years.”

She said she still attends the church, but less regularly.

“I can’t leave — my faith gets me through this. If I wasn’t a believer, then this would be pointless.”

NOTE: Click on photos to see larger, uncropped versions. LEFT: Pipes that will carry hydraulically fractured natural gas rest along the cleared right of way where they will be buried on land adjacent to Becky Crabtree’s home near Lindside, W.Va. RIGHT: Stacks of tree trunks that were cleared to make way for a natural gas pipeline (left foreground) stand along the right of way for the pipeline on land adjacent to Crabtree's home. Sections of the green pipe that will be buried and then carry the gas are visible further down the hill.

Crabtree’s pipeline opposition extends beyond her church: It also crosses the 25-acre farm where the couple retired from teaching careers to raise sheep. Mountain Valley Pipeline, the company operating the 304-mile pipeline, accessed their land through eminent domain.

They had little leverage to stop the pipeline so they accepted a small sum from the company that Crabtree said they used to buy solar panels and donate to groups that stage protests and file lawsuits against the company.

That one-time payment doesn’t offset the long-term effects the pipeline will have on their land.

“We can’t sell our property. Federal loan programs won’t finance a home with a pipeline on the property,” she said. “Our sheep won’t graze up on the hill where they’ve dug because of all the noise. But I don’t want to move; we love it here.”

With the pipeline so close, the Crabtrees’ land is considered an “incineration zone.”

“That means in an explosion, we’re dead. Others are in an ‘evacuation zone,’ meaning they’d have to leave their homes in a leak or explosion, but they’d live,” she said.

Stacks of tree trunks, cut to make way for a natural gas pipeline lay on the cleared right of way near Becky Crabtree's home.

Aerial drone footage of a natural gas pipeline being installed outside Charleston, W.Va. Drone footage courtesy of the Rev. Deborah Coble.

A temporary pumping station draws water from Wheeling Creek to support a hydraulically fractured natural gas well near West Finley, Pa. The process of extracting the gas can require 4 to 6 million gallons of water.

Gas explosions are a dangerous hazard to living in proximity to a pipeline or well. A 2018 explosion in Marshall County in northern West Virginia destroyed 30 acres and people reported seeing it from the next county.

Bennett recalled a pipeline explosion that occurred when he lived near Charleston several years ago.

“It burned a 500-foot swath and melted the interstate. By God’s grace, no one was hurt, but it looked like a war zone,” he said.

Becky Crabtree stands with the 1971 Ford Pinto she keeps as part of a protest display against the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which will carry hydraulically fractured natural gas across her land.

On July 4, 2018, Crabtree decided if she couldn’t stop the pipeline, she’d do what she could to slow it down.

She parked her 1971 Ford Pinto across the trench being dug to lay pipe, chained herself to the engine block and had the doors welded shut. She was charged with obstruction but the charges were later dropped.

Her faith guided her act of civil disobedience.

“It’s a sin to be able to save the planet and not try,” she said.

She recently attended a meeting of the West Virginia Conference Justice and Advocacy Committee, where she described being “overwhelmed by the love and caring at that table.” She has also “un-retired” and is teaching ninth-grade Earth Science online through the county high school.

A protest sign against the Mountain Valley Pipeline and a U.S. flag adorn a sheep pen in a rolling pasture belonging to Roger and Becky Crabtree near Lindside, W.Va. The pipeline company acquired rights to run a natural gas pipeline across their property by eminent domain.

Though Crabtree’s experience getting a small sum from gas companies is common, some parties — including churches — have been able to profit. The thinking is that if the pipelines can’t be stopped, rights owners should try to get as much as they can.

Of course, the contracts to lease the land are generated by the gas companies, written in terms favorable to themselves. Few individuals are equipped to navigate such a complicated legal document.

“Companies present a lease, wave some money under someone’s nose and they sign. They don’t know what they’re signing and they’ll sign anyway,” said Dan Fisher, a retired petroleum engineer.

Fisher offers his expertise to anyone who’s received such a contract. He’s given presentations with negotiation tips to various churches and other groups, and created a resource walking through the steps of drafting a lease.

He said the most common mistakes he sees are not knowing the market value of the minerals and not realizing that everything in the lease can be negotiated. He also urges anyone to hire technical and legal consultation.

“I’m free, the lawyers aren’t,” he said.

The right of way for a natural gas pipeline passes through farmland near the community of Mountain, W.Va. The pipeline runs beneath the smooth area in the lower right corner of the photo, crossing a small creek at the edge of the tree line. Aerial photography flight courtesy of SouthWings.

Pipes that will be used for an underground natural gas transmission line lay in a newly cleared right of way near Beech, W.Va. Aerial photography flight courtesy of SouthWings.

A well pad for a hydraulically fractured gas well sits in a man-made clearing in the rolling hills near Duckworth, W.Va. Aerial photography flight courtesy of SouthWings.

Fisher’s advice was invaluable to the Rev. Mike Linger, executive director of House of the Carpenter, a mission project of the West Virginia Conference located on Wheeling Island.

Linger helped negotiate a lease for his mother-in-law’s land, and said he followed Fisher’s document step by step. He found several instances where the gas company was trying to pay less or avoid payment altogether and was able to force them to pay the full amount.

Linger acknowledges the dilemma of profiting from something that he opposes. Even the church he attends leases its land to a gas company, but he still feels the faith community in general should speak out.

“The state government is writing everything to favor the extraction companies,” he said. “The church could be the biggest advocate to be certain the community is not decimated in this process. It could call for safety, care for community, care for the environment.”

“Love of the Earth is important and when that’s not a Methodist thing, I’m done,” Crabtree said.

Ashton Berdine views an old-growth walnut tree in the Marie Hall Jones Ancient Forest Preserve near West Union, W.Va. He is the lands program manager for the West Virginia Land Trust.

Ashton Berdine also considers creation care a foundation of his faith.

“You can connect with a whole lot in nature,” he said. “Old hunters would say, ‘I’d rather sit on a stump on Sunday.’”

As lands program manager for the nonprofit West Virginia Land Trust, Berdine helps oversee and protect more than 10,000 acres of natural sites statewide.

“I’ve always thought the faith community was the solution to protecting, conserving the natural world. I wanted to know what The United Methodist Church was doing and how I could get involved,” he said.

His pastor directed him to the Justice and Advocacy Committee.

LEFT: The Marie Hall Jones Ancient Forest Preserve near West Union, W.Va., is a 190-acre tract of Appalachian mixed hardwood forest that has been protected against future development by the West Virginia Land Trust. RIGHT: A beech leaf rests on a dusting of snow in the Marie Hall Jones Ancient Forest Preserve.

Berdine said both his faith and his biology background reveal the true value in nature — not just how it may be useful to humans.

“Everything has an inherent value to exist. I started out as an endangered species biologist and would often encounter someone who’d say, ‘Well, what good is it?’ It’s good because it was put here!”

A metal plate marks the boundary of the Marie Hall Jones Ancient Forest Preserve.
Ashton Berdine walks past a warning marker for a buried natural gas pipeline along the edge of the Marie Hall Jones Ancient Forest Preserve.

Though Berdine’s faith complements his love of nature, he said he struggles with a well-known Bible passage regarding God’s creation: Genesis 1:26, which states that man is created in God’s image and will “rule over” the Earth and every creature on it.

“That elevates humans to something greater but also made everything else less,” he said, “and I think it’s all made in the image of God.”

He said the phrases “rule over” or “have dominion over” are misleading.

“Dominion can mean it was put before us to use, to some people. It gives us a free pass to exploit creation. If you truly believe God made it, and it’s beautiful, how could you want it to be monetized and used and destroyed?”

The United Methodist Social Principles avoid such terminology, instead stating: “God has granted us stewardship of creation. We should meet these stewardship duties through acts of loving care and respect.”

Ashton Berdine walks through the Marie Hall Jones Ancient Forest Preserve.
A natural gas well pad is visible through trees just outside the Marie Hall Jones Ancient Forest Preserve.
Sunlight filters through trees in a mixed hardwood forest in the Marie Hall Jones Ancient Forest Preserve.

Butler is a multimedia producer/editor and DuBose is staff photographer for United Methodist News Service. Contact them at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

Thank you to volunteer pilot Scott Simonton and the SouthWings conservation organization for providing an aerial photography and observation flight November 2019 during the reporting of this story. Thanks also to the Rev. Deborah Coble, director of communications for the West Virginia Conference, for her help in this story.


Photos by Mike DuBose, United Methodist News Service