New Castle News

February 13, 2012

Mitchel Olszak: Marcellus Shale in county remains a mystery

Mitchel Olszak
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — So is Lawrence County about to undergo a massive economic boom courtesy of natural gas drilling?

Are property owners soon to enjoy wealth beyond imagination? Are jobs about to go begging for workers to fill them?

Or is the community going to be pockmarked with drilling sites, as corporations pillage the environment for their own gain, leaving the region in economic and ecological shambles? Are we to be exploited by outsiders who siphon our wealth and destroy our resources and infrastructure?

You can read a lot about the prospective future of Pennsylvania in light of drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale. Depending on the perspective, the interests and the concerns of those behind the words, that future will be either wonderful or disastrous.

But from what I see, the future remains pretty much as it always does — uncertain.

Here’s what we do know: Relatively recent advances in drilling techniques allow for access to deep sources of fossil fuel that were previously beyond human reach. Around the nation, areas of shale rock — soft, brittle layers of sedimentary material — have been discovered to hold deposits of either natural gas or oil.

Drilling rigs can reach these levels and then inject fluids into the shale to fracture it, making the fuel accessible. It has opened new sources of gas, and one result is a drop in the price of this fuel in the marketplace.

Under much of Pennsylvania is a layer of shale named Marcellus. The shale has been tapped around the commonwealth, and people are making money from it. In some places, environmental and safety problems have arisen.

Not all shale is created equal. Nature has distributed the gas unevenly. In some parts of the state, drillers have discovered “sweet spots” of high concentration. In other areas, there is little gas and the incentive to drill is limited.

Here in Lawrence County, we are on the edge of the Marcellus Shale layer. So far, there has been no rush to drill here. A couple of wells have been drilled and a few others are planned this year.

And unless significant quantities of fuel are discovered in the county, that’s not likely to change.

Property owners around the county have signed oil and gas leases for thousands of dollars per acre, with promises of much more to come if a well produces. But a lease does not make drilling inevitable. Companies have an incentive to gain rights to property, if for no other reason than to ensure competitors do not.

Drilling into deep shale layers poses a financial risk for companies that do it. It’s an expensive process, and wells can come up dry or produce poorly. This is why you are seeing much of the shale drilling activity focused on proven areas in the commonwealth.

In discussing shale, it’s important to remember there is a second layer that underlies Pennsylvania called the Utica Shale. It runs deeper than the Marcellus and many tout it as another source of fossil fuel wealth.

But the contents of the Utica Shale remain largely speculative. What lies under Lawrence County is so far unknown.

In short, the full economic benefits of shale drilling for Lawrence County are unclear. The same holds true with the environmental impact.

There are legitimate reasons for optimism and concern on both fronts. However, the future of shale drilling in this community must be viewed a work in progress.