Who is Marcellus Shale?

Region getting education about natural gas drilling

By Matthew J. Perry
The Central New York Landowners Association will bring a lawyer, a geologist and 55,000 acres of land to a forum at 7 p.m. tomorrow night at Delaware Academy in Delhi to spread awareness of the gas-bearing formation called the Marcellus Shale, which is locked thousands of feet under the Catskills, and the complicated means of getting it out.
The Marcellus Shale came into being some 400 million years ago, when shallow seas covered this region instead of mountains. The natural gas within the rock is also effectively ageless, and until the 21st century it was buried too deep for existing technology to extract it.
But drilling technology has become more sophisticated, and the rising demand and cost for energy has made wooded, hilly terrain more attractive to speculators. As a result, a layer of geologic sediment far beneath our feet has become a superstar.
The Marcellus Shale formation stretches some 600 linear miles—its southern terminus is in West Virginia—and rests thousands of feet below the surface, between 50 and 100 feet thick. At present, Pennsylvania is the focus of effort for nearly two dozen energy companies that are intent on cashing in on natural gas. But interest in New York State is fast reaching the boiling point, and it has left many in the area wondering what the fuss is all about this time around.
Gas companies have drilled in the Catskills before, mostly in the 1960s and ’70s; old leases are being circulated as curiosities and primers today as landowners assess the value of their acres. But the drilling methods and wells of the day did not produce enough gas to continue working in Delaware County, and the leases lapsed. Geologic speculation requires experts to determine how much of a resource might be buried in the ground, how much can be extracted, and what it will cost an industry to pull it out. Until only a few years ago, the Marcellus Shale got high marks for potential, but was simply not worth the effort to be explored.
Two factors extensively reworked this equation. A rich play was made in the Barnett Shale, located in Texas, which attached large dollar signs to natural gas extracted from shale formations. And geology engineers refined horizontal drilling, which bores sideways through rock, to create a more effective means of extraction than vertical drilling had been. A lateral pipe will access many more pockets of gas, and can exploit resources beneath residential or protected land on the surface. Much natural gas in Texas originated beneath the city of Fort Worth.
Gas is extracted from shale through hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracing’: blasting water, sand and chemicals down tubes thousands of feet long. The sand, in effect, creates spaces between the rock, through which gas can filter and make its way back up the tube to be collected. The drilling is a noisy process, and fracing requires large amounts of surface water; because gas companies are not required to inform the public exactly which chemicals they use, the process also evokes worry and suspicion.
Since few wells have been drilled in New York, relative to the millions of acres that have been leased, speculation about the productivity of the Marcellus Shale still varies greatly. One study estimated that the formation contains 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, of which 50 trillion could be recovered through drilling. In 2002, a US geologic survey forecasted a far more modest yield of 1.9 trillion cubic feet. The state Energy Research and Development program has predicted that New York’s share of the Marcellus could double its current production of 55 billion cubic feet, which equals five percent of the state’s present needs.
Meanwhile, natural gas, while rising steadily in price, is still considered an undervalued commodity by some energy experts. Domestic natural gas production has declined overall, as has the volume of Canadian imports. Meanwhile, Range Resources, which has been operating in the Marcellus Shale since 2004, reported that six recent horizontal wells have been producing three million cubic feet of gas per day, production that outstrips similar wells in the Barnett Shale. In light of such figures, it is not surprising that players are feeling bullish: one expert on the region reports that gas companies have already spent some $700 million to develop their holdings in the Marcellus Shale.