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Friday, January 18, 2008

Massive gas field detected


A deep reservoir of long-hidden natural gas, stretching from New York through Pennsylvania and into West Virginia, could pump more than $400 billion into the Mid- Atlantic economy and push the U.S. toward energy independence, a Penn State researcher has found.

Geosciences professor Terry Engelder, collaborating with Gary Lash at the State University of New York, recently completed the analysis after spending 30 years and an estimated $3 million on research.

Penn State released overall findings on Thursday. State and industry experts said some companies already have begun to explore the prospects — with some early success within the past year or so.

Engelder said the gas, lodged 6,000 to 7,000 feet underground, promises the U.S. “a certain amount of energy security down the line.”

“This is America’s resource,” he said, likening the find to the oil discoveries near Oil City in the early 1900s. “The impact that this has on America is immeasurable.”

U.S. wells produce about 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas each year. Pennsylvania alone counts an estimated 35,000 to 40,000 active gas wells and is adding about 4,000 a year, according to state and industry reports.

The deeper gas rests in a ribbon of rock known as the Marcellus black shale. The Marcellus covers hundreds of square miles, from southern New York into western and northern Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, Maryland and West Virginia.

The portion in Pennsylvania reaches the northern tier as far east as the Scranton area and as far south and west as Somerset County and the Pittsburgh area. But it does not touch Centre County, Engelder said.

He estimated that the Marcellus shale houses at least 168 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and could hold as much as 516 trillion cubic feet.

Of that, Engelder said, current technology should be able to extract about 50 trillion cubic feet.

He said accomplishing that feat could require 50,000 new gas wells in the five-state area, including some reopened wells. Once wells are drilled and running, he said, drawing the available gas from the Marcellus shale is likely to last well more than a decade.

The U.S. Geological Survey has developed a more conservative estimate of the natural gas available in the Marcellus shale. Its calculation is about 31.4 trillion cubic feet, said John Harper, a Pittsburgh-based geologist

with the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

“There are no absolutes” in dealing with the shale layer, Harper said.

He said the deep Marcellus shale and its gas were first discovered in the 1930s, when drilling for a variety of wells was under way.

But it wasn’t until a decade ago, Harper said, that new technology made it possible to recover the hard-to-reach fuel.

Already, some energy companies have started to drill wells tapping the Marcellus in Susquehanna County and near Pittsburgh. Drilling permits have been issued in Fayette, Greene, Somerset and Washington counties, toward Pittsburgh, according to state data.

“We’re very optimistic about the prospects. The potential of the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania is substantial,” said Stephen Rhoads, president of the 200-member Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Association.

Among the companies with reported interest is State Col-lege- based Rex Energy. An inquiry left there was not immediately answered Thursday.

Rhoads estimated that the gas sector employs a few thousand Pennsylvanians. Industry interest in new exploration, he said, stems from the high and stable prices now in place.

Further, natural gas has gained appeal as the U.S. tries to avoid “other fuels that release significant amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” Rhoads said.

The amount of natural gas used to power vehicles, for instance, has climbed more than 50 percent since 2002, according to federal reports.

If the Marcellus shale is as productive as anticipated, “Pennsylvania will see a substantial boom in natural-gas exploration and development,” Rhoads said.

Engelder said another highlight is the location of the gas — relatively close to key East Coast cities and a distribution infrastructure already in place.

It may be too soon to predict exactly how the Marcellus shales could affect natural-gas prices or job growth. (Prices increased more than 50 percent from 2001 to 2006, the most recent year for which official federal data are easily available.)

Engelder, who received research support from a variety of federal and industry sources over the years, said he is confident that energy companies will monitor environmental impacts well.

Penn State may assemble an institute to review those impacts, too, he said.

“I can assure you that (the companies) are in the business of being environmentally conscious,” Engelder said. From Centre Daily Times

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