SALEM - After losing his job of 37 years at Denman Tire, Gary Armstrong knows not to squander a once-in-a-lifetime windfall in the form of a natural gas drilling lease on his family farm in Gustavus.
"I'll buy some farm machinery. We might travel a little bit. We'll invest," Armstrong said after signing lease papers Tuesday, giving BP North America Gas the right to drill for Utica Shale natural gas and oil on his 70 acres.
Linda said the couple remember the anxiety from two years of unemployment. "We'll help other people," she said.
About 175 county landowners with last names starting with A or B drove to the former South Range Middle School north of Salem in the first wave of 1,954 who are leasing about 84,000 acres to BP.
The building is the base for Associated Landowners of the Ohio Valley, the group organized by Salem area farmer Bob Rea to negotiate leases in the booming Marcellus and Utica shale gas formations.
ALOV's Trumbull County members agreed late last month to sign with BP for $3,900 an acre and 17.5 percent production royalty.
About 40 BP workers, mostly from Houston but also from Colorado and Wyoming, will continue signing leases each day through Monday, BP officials said.
Bruce Abbuhl, who manages BP's Ohio program, called it the company's biggest single signing event, "and we believe it's the largest in Ohio."
Previous leases were spread over more than one county. Rea said signings for 85,000 acres with Chesapeake Energy covered eight counties, spreading the title searches over numerous county offices instead of concentrating them in one, as will happen with Trumbull County.
Each lease signing was taking 1 1/2 to 2 hours, a period Abbuhl said workers were trying to reduce. He said he was "getting more confident by the hour that we can finish" the task.
Landowners were to bring copies of their deeds, power of attorney, business forms, property tax statements and other legal information.
Documents moved through tables of BP workers, who each performed specific tasks, such as highlighting key pieces of information so other workers could easily write the information on the leases.
The leases were printed in triplicate before winding up at notaries for owners to sign.
Once the leases are signed, BP will bring in workers to a new downtown Warren office near the Trumbull County courthouse, where they will do title searches.
The Armstrongs said title searchers normally go back 140 years to verify clear ownership, but that their own attorney, Gil Rieger, went back 175 years.
"We're clear to 1837," Linda Armstrong said.
BP is allowing six months to complete the title search process, followed by the bonus checks arriving for landowners.
In the meantime, Abbuhl said the company will hire a local company to do environmental studies, including a baseline water study in order to measure any changes in water quality once drilling and hydraulic fracturing of the shale begins.
Survey crews will be working in late summer or early fall, setting the stage for drilling to start in early 2013, although he said the company will try to start a little earlier if possible.
Gary Armstrong said he believes the ALOV lease protects the land and water from contamination from hydraulic fracturing, a process of injecting millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into the shale formation to crack the rock and release the gas into the well.
He credited Rea with coming up with leases to protect the environment, while maximizing the payout for landowners.
"He said our lease is better than his lease," Armstrong said. "My attorney said this is the best lease he's ever seen."
Armstrong, who raises corn, soybeans and Santa Gertrudis beef cattle, plans to continue farming even if BP drills on land his parents bought in 1962.
"I was born to farm," he said. "I'm 57. I figure I'll be doing this until I'm 97."