buggy-crossing-sign-amish
Arthur Chapman

It’s no secret that fracking companies engage in some shady behavior. But a report in The New Republic reveals just how low they’ll sink in the rush to exploit natural gas: Energy companies in eastern Ohio — home to the world’s largest Amish population and billions of dollars worth of oil and gas reserves — have been convincing Amish farmers to sign away drilling rights to their land for far less than they’re worth, knowing that because their religious tradition frowns on lawsuits, the landowners will have little recourse for justice once they realize they’ve been duped.

Lloyd Miller, for example, an Amish farmer near Millersburg, Ohio, said an agent from Kenoil offered him $10 an acre to drill for shale gas on his 158 acres, promising it was the best deal around. Strapped for cash at the time, Miller and his wife said yes, figuring, “Hey, that’s $1,500 we didn’t have,” Miller explained. But they soon found out many non-Amish farmers in the area were leasing drilling rights for as much as $1,000 an acre. Miller consulted with a lawyer, who told him the agent had committed fraud by promising that $10 an acre was the best he could get. The Millers had grounds to sue — but that’s something that, in accordance with their Amish beliefs, they’d never do. Of the Kenoil agent, Miller said: “He’s got to live with his conscience.”

The New Republic explains:

Their prohibition on the courts derives from the portion of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus instructs his followers to turn the other cheek, and if they are sued for their coats, to give up their cloaks, too. The Amish interpret this to mean that the court is no place to right wrongs. In 2011, for example, after the Securities and Exchange Commission charged a local man, Monroe L. Beachy, with running a Ponzi scheme that wiped out nearly $17 million in Amish retirement savings, a committee representing his some 2,500 Amish creditors asked a judge to dismiss his bankruptcy case so that they could resolve his debts amongst themselves.

Lest you’re tempted to give fracking companies the benefit of the doubt, a lawyer for Columbia Gas Transmission Corp. told The New Republic that the Amish restriction on litigation is “a known fact to us.”

One local father-and-son law firm said it had consulted with dozens of Amish landowners in the area who had been misled by energy companies in a manner similar to the Millers. The Amish are willing to consult with lawyers, and negotiate tough contracts to minimize the possibility of fraud, but once a contract is signed, even if it’s breached, there’s little they can do.

To make these ripoffs more egregious, the hazards of fracking can have an outsize effect on Amish farmers. A fracking site can take up as much as 10 acres, a sizable chunk of the typical Amish farm, which is usually less than 150 acres. And because the Amish don’t rely on modern farming technology, making a profit on their land is a constant struggle, so being cheated out of tens of thousands of dollars is especially painful.

Some say the Amish should know better than to agree to such clearly undervalued leases. But in some cases, energy companies have made it especially difficult for them by capitalizing on decades-old leases that are technically expired. Proving a lease is expired can require landowners to appear in court — again, something the Amish won’t do.

One possible workaround exists:

Aware of the complications caused by a prohibition on lawsuits, some [Amish] bishops have decided that their flock can pursue what’s known as a declaratory judgment, in which a judge merely interprets a contract. Many are still uncomfortable with that … The process still unfolds in a courtroom, but the arrangement is more palatable because there are no monetary awards involved and no jury.

I wouldn’t count on the fracking companies to suddenly be overcome with remorse and decide to put a stop to this exploitation. But maybe as word gets out about how their neighbors are getting fracked, Amish landowners will tread more carefully.