Tue August 23, 2011
Q & A

How to monitor the gas industry online

As part of our story about landmen in the Marcellus Shale, we spoke with Chris Csikszentmihályi, who co-created the "Landman Report Card" project.

But Csikszentmihályi didn't just create one website to help track fracking - he created three.

  • LandmanReportCard.com, where homeowners can give landmen letter grades
  • NewsPositioning.com, where people can track news reports about oil and gas
  • Wellwatch.org, where property owners can record all the drilling activity going on in their neighborhood, on a well-by-well basis

Together those sites comprise the MIT Media Lab's "extrACT projects," and they've taught Csikszentmihályi valuable lessons about natural gas and web 2.0.

Q: What’s the goal of the landman report project?

The goal of all three of the extrACT projects are essentially corporate responsibility in one form or another. What we found as we were doing our field work across the U. S. is that opinions by surface owners of landmen were overall pretty radically negative ... they had a reputation akin to used car salesmen and snake oil salesmen. Many surface owners felt they had been misled in the course of leasing or coming up with surface use agreements.

So the point of Landman Report Card was essentially to ... allow surface owners to basically keep a journal of their interactions, so that we could start to document what the surface owners said the landmen were saying, what kinds of documents were being shared, what sort of agreements were being signed.

Q: And who was the intended audience?

Well the intended audience is among other things other landowners. One of the things that we’re very proud of is that while we still have relatively few reports on Landman Report Card, when you do a Google search for one of the landmen that we do have a report for, typically our hit is the first thing that comes up.

Q: Did you intentionally search-optimize the site?

Yes. One of the things we heard from landowners was that different people within the town would have radically different experiences with different landmen. And when we asked more questions we found that in one case where there has been a positive experience the landmen had been working directly for a large oil and gas company, and in the negative experience may have been working for a small or local company.

Coming from MIT, our radar went up that there are a lot of variables involved here. Can we start to build a better understanding of what landmen behavior is, of what different kind of pressures landmen are put under to sign and to get permission, stuff like that? And can that also be a tool for better policy and regulation as well?

In many cases the people who signed leases don’t have buyer’s regret for some time. In rural Pennsylvania people signed for $2 an acre and now that it’s going for $4,000 or $5,000 an acre. Now they’ve got buyer’s remorse, but at the time that they signed they didn’t. So people’s memories of transactions and interactions will change over time.

We were trying to make sure that people got this stuff documented early so that we would have both a more realistic record of what happened, but also potentially more of a chance for people to have some kind of record that would help them if they were pursuing some sort of  legal or regulatory action later. But also to defend landmen from spurious charges.

The point is just to get better information about what’s going on and just to document that process.

Q: You talked about difficulty populating the site (getting lots of reviews) – why do you think that is?

Well I think we’ve had more luck with [our newer site] Well Watch than Landman Report Card in part because  it’s a common thing - web 2.0 sites you know, or review sites, for the most motivated people to be the 20 percent who absolutely loved the experience at the top and the 20 percent who had a miserable experience at the bottom.

The majority of people aren’t really that motivated to write a review if it was just you know a good meal, a fine movie, but nothing too extraordinary. They’re less likely to write. So it seems like a lot of this online activity gets structured towards the most positive and the most negative experiences.

In the case of landmen, it’s not likely to capture commentary from people at the time when they really fully understand what’s happening. If I’ve just been hoodwinked, I just sold my lease for $2 an acre, I’m not necessarily going to want to put that up on the Internet. I’m a little embarrassed. I’m not so thrilled with having walked into signing a document without having been fully informed.

And once you know about the risks and impacts of signing with a landman, you’ve got bigger issues than dealing with a landman. So I think that’s one of the things we kind of miscalculated on on the way to writing the software is just kind of the temporal disjunction - the timeline - between when you deal with landmen, and when the implications of those dealings [become apparent].

We kind of were aware of some of that, but we still thought it was useful  in part because of the huge Marcellus play that was going on.

Q: So Well Watch is trying to capture where people get more energized and see if you can get more information on the entire process? Is that the way to think about it?

Yeah. I think we always knew was that the most motivated people are the people who have stuff on their property that’s leaking or their topsoil wasn’t replaced or things like that. These people have active urgent itches that they need scratched, and we have found that they’re more likely to put them up on Well Watch.