Marcellus Shale natural gas is being pulled from the ground at breakneck speed in northeastern Pennsylvania and as close as Westmoreland, Greene and Fayette counties.
Yet the Cambria-Somerset region has seen relatively little activity.
While those on either side of the Marcellus argument think this low production in our region is likely to change during the next two or three years, Cambria and Somerset counties probably will not become a hotbed of gas drilling under existing technology and gas prices.
Marcellus activity likely will be most aggressive in northern Cambria County as it stretches into Clearfied County, where drilling already is more active, according to geologists and lease records at the Cambria courthouse in Ebensburg.
Shifts in the earth that occurred more than 400 million years ago are playing a significant role in Marcellus drilling in Somerset County, said Bill Brice, professor emeritus of geology and planetary science at Pitt-Johnstown.
“Parts of it are faulted, which means either a break in the rock or where one part has pushed over the other,” Brice said.
Geologist Michael Arthur, co-director of the Penn State Marcellus Center, agreed. He said Somerset County is not alone.
“Throughout the Appalachian Basin there is disruption of the shale,” Arthur said. “I know in Somerset County there is one major anticline and thrust, and it makes drilling difficult.”
The twisted geology means a driller could encounter a fault – an offset in the rock – and there may be Marcellus shale on one side and not on the other, he said.
“There is enough complexity in Somerset County, it could make it a real challenge,” Arthur said.
Figures provided by the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Oil and Gas Management reflect the slow growth of the Marcellus industry in the region, with four wells each in Cambria and Somerset counties.
Cambria, Jackson and Clearfield townships have one well each, while two are in Adams Township.
Four permits have been issued for Cambria as of just more than a month ago, while 13 permits have been issued for Somerset County, according to DEP records.
Plans are under way to drill two additional wells in the Bens Creek area of Portage Township and possibly two wells in neighboring Washington Township.
In Somerset County, the four wells are located in the townships of Jefferson, Middlecreek, Addison and Brothersvalley.
Land owned by Cambria County around the county prison outside Ebensburg is being considered for Marcellus drilling after the commissioners last month retained a firm to seek bids for leasing the
126 acres. The commissioners said they saw it as a way of generating revenue on land that belongs to the county residents and is not being used.
‘Change the landscape’
Despite the seemingly slow move to Marcellus drilling locally, the activity will come eventually, said Charles Christen, director of operations for the Pittsburgh-based Healthy Environmental Communities.
The group was formed in 2004 at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health under a grant from the Heinz Foundation.
Counties to the west of Cambria and Somerset have seen significant Marcellus activity.
Washington County is third in the state for wells at 125.
Westmoreland County has 65 wells, while Greene has 64 and Fayette, 62.
“You think there are a lot of wells in Washington, Greene and Westmoreland counties,” Christen said. “This is nothing. It’s just a drop in the bucket compared to what we’re going to see.”
He said drilling in Cambria and Somerset counties is a way for companies to test the geology.
“These are just exploratory wells. They’re not buying those leases for nothing,” he said.
“They’re going to be poking holes all over the place.
“This is not about a few wells being struck here and there.”
The number of wells the state could eventually host is just a guess, but if increased activity is any reflection, the numbers could be significant.
The Alliance for Aquatic Resource Monitoring (ALLARM) predicts that the number of wells statewide just for Marcellus may be 20 times the current level.
“It could be 75,000 to 100,000 wells,” said Julie Vastine, ALLARM’s director. “This is going to forever change the landscape of Pennsylvania.”
The organization is a project of the Environmental Studies Department at Dickinson College in Carlisle. ALLARM was formed 1986 to study the impact of acid rain.
Somerset County Conservation District manager Len Lichvar has no doubt that Marcellus drilling is coming to the region in a big way.
“We haven’t seen it here much, but it’s coming.” Lichvar said. “They’re looking for locations all over (Somerset) county. There is an unlimited amount of testing going on.”
Lichvar is also a member of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.
‘We don’t have transmission lines’
Another significant reason for slow drilling in the region is lack of infrastructure to bring the natural gas to the large population centers on the East Coast, Brice said.
“A big problem in our region is we don’t have the transmission lines and they’re very expensive to develop,” he said.
Dennis Beck, a longtime clean-water advocate from the Portage area and member of the Portage Area Water Authority, said it’s about getting the gas to where it is in demand.
“I think it’s going to be slower than other counties because we don’t have transmission lines,” he said.
A main transmission line running in the area of Route 6 across northern Pennsylvania to New York and New Jersey makes the Marcellus gas in shale beds along the northern border much more attractive than here, Beck said.
Robb Piper, director of the Cambria County Conservation District, said well activity in Cambria may have been influenced by the Texas Eastern line that starts in Indiana County and parallels Route 22 to the Lilly area then on to Blair County.
While the Marcellus Shale bed is marginal in Bedford County, the county does have transmission lines, some of them built in recent years and others as part of the massive Texas Eastern system that criss-crosses the nation.
The result is a massive underground storage facility near Clearville, where few local people reap many benefits, said Mike Benard, who heads a property owners’ organization.
“There are no benefits,” Benard said. “We had no control.”
While there had been natural gas drilling in the Clearville area – gases closer to the surface than Marcellus – Spectrum Energy Inc., of Irvine, Calif., and Charlotte, N.C., developed a 12 billion-cubic-foot underground storage facility five years ago.
Since then, Benard said, the residents have been plagued by emergency shutdowns of the facility – including one incident that left an oily coating on vehicles and homes.
Concerns persist over potential toxic emissions.
A representative for Spectrum could not be reached for comment.
Next frontier: Utica
While the push is on for Marcellus gas sometimes 9,000 feet underground, drilling companies are looking even deeper as technology advances.
The next frontier likely will be the natural gas in the Utica shale bed, said Penn State’s Arthur.
Utica is about 2,000 feet below Marcellus in part of Appalachian Basin, but it moves deeper further to the north, he said.
Initial indictions are that Utica may not have the quantity or quality of Marcellus gas, but it appears to be an energy source worth exploring.
Earlier this year, Range Resources, a Texas-based company considered a leader in natural gas extraction, drilled a well into the Utica layer, Arthur said.
“The area of interest is further to the west in Pennsylvania,” Arthur said. “And Range is not saying where the well was drilled, but they said they were happy with it.”
Another drilling company is said to have drilled a well into the Utica gas in Ohio, a well that likewise showed good results, Arthur said.
The depth far below the Marcellus means the quality may be impacted because it is hotter and has greater degradation of the hydrocarbons, he said.
“The deeper, the hotter,” Arthur said, “and in western Pennsylvania and Ohio it is not as deep.”
With present technology, new wells will have to be drilled to reach the Utica, but they could be drilled from existing Marcellus pads, most geologists agree.