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Tradition and temptation as Amish debate fracking

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BALTIC, Ohio – In parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania where horse-drawn buggies clip-clop at the pace of a bygone era, Amish communities are debating a new temptation – the large cash royalties that can come with the boom in oil and gas drilling.

In some ways, Amish attitudes toward hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, are as different from the outside world as their clothes and traditions. Instead of worries about air and water pollution, they’re focusing on people’s souls.

“Amish are no different than anybody else. The power of big money can bring spiritual corruption,” said Jerry Schlabach, an Amish resident of Berlin, Ohio. “If we can keep our values and adhere to biblical principle, then it can be a very positive thing,” he said.

Reuben Troyer, who recently signed a drilling lease for his 140-acre farm just east of the market town of New Bedford, Ohio, said he feels comfortable with the process itself.

“I guess I feel they know what they’re doing, and they’ll take care of themselves,” Troyer said.

The stakes can be huge. While oil and gas wells have been common in parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania for more than 100 years, they typically didn’t lead to huge payments to landowners. But over the past few years, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has led to bigger wells that can generate hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars in royalties for a property holder.

During fracking, large volumes of water, along with sand and hazardous chemicals, are injected underground to break rock apart and free the oil and gas. The process has led to a boom in energy production in many states, but also concerns about air and water pollution.

Along the narrow bending roads of Amish country in Ohio and Pennsylvania, many families are sitting atop valuable deposits of oil and natural gas locked in the Utica and Marcellus Shale rock formations. They tend to view the wells as a part of life and look forward to the added income a lease can bring.

Local leaders in Ohio say nearly every farmer in the region has an old oil well, so it was no surprise when energy companies came knocking to drill bigger, more lucrative shale wells.

About 45 percent of the nation’s Amish population is concentrated in Ohio and Pennsylvania, with 63,000 in each state out of a total of 280,000 nationwide. The Amish trace their roots to the Protestant Reformation and restrict interactions with the modern world and technology. They dress plainly, don’t hold political office and are conscientious objectors during wars.

Historian Donald B. Kraybill said that some Amish accept drilling partly because they “have a strong sense of God’s creation,” and that includes oil and natural gas.

“If they can find ways to capitalize on the resources under the ground, they don’t see a problem with that,” he said.

To the Amish, Schlabach said, “the world was created for the benefit of man. And nature, as we see it, is made to be used as long as it’s kept in proper perspective.”

For Susan Mast, an Amish wife and mother, the issue hit close to home last summer, when an energy company purchased land adjacent to their quiet, well-manicured Ohio farm near the village of Baltic and began fracking.

“It’s not as noisy as we thought it would be,” said Mast, who has seven children. The well, on land owned by her parents, is in production now, but she said the drilling phase didn’t bother the youngsters.

“They enjoyed watching what was going on,” she said.

But there are some practical concerns about all the industrial activity that comes with the recent shale drilling.

“I’m not excited about it, with all the traffic, with all the horses,” said Melvin Yoder, who owns a 58-acre farm in central Ohio.

Kraybill noted that rules vary widely among Amish communities, but that there is “considerable concern” among church leaders that drilling money could create huge income disparities within the same community.

The concerns over the effects of fracking extend to other energy sources, too.

In New Wilmington, Pa., several Amish men and women said their community doesn’t permit solar panels, though some people are signing gas leases.

Kraybill, co-author of the new book “The Amish,” said he wasn’t surprised to hear that traditional communities like New Wilmington have concerns over solar power since the Amish “are reticent to display things or have public displays of the technology” and are cautious about electricity.

Sam Stoltzfus, an Amish farmer in Gordonville, Pa., said that there was some resistance at first to solar power there, but that it’s widely used now. On the issue of gas drilling leases, Stoltzfus said outsiders often overlook some important facts about the Amish lifestyle.

“It doesn’t matter where you go in America, if a farmer doesn’t have some sort of subsidy, he is not going to be able to survive,” Stoltzfus said, adding that a gas drilling boom in Danville, about two hours north, helped the Amish communities there by generating considerable carpentry and repair work.

And the Amish value work for more than the income it brings, Schlabach said.

“Human beings are by nature lazy. Free money basically equals free time,” he said. “Idleness is the devil’s workshop.”

Still, Schlabach hopes that strong Amish family and church traditions will enable people to use fracking wealth wisely, perhaps even to help start new communities in other states.

“Use it to help others rather than consuming it on yourself,” Schlabach said. “Life doesn’t consist of your possessions. Possessions are nothing, and it is what you do for other people that lasts.”

But whether the fracking boom helps or hurts the Amish is up to the community itself, he said, since it’s just another chapter in an ongoing struggle to maintain their beliefs in a fast-moving, modern world.

“The inflow of all the money is going to really expose the spiritual level of the community,” Schlabach said. “If it does corrupt in a big way, then we know we have drifted spiritually.”

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