Executives see a future beneath region's land

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Drilling for natural gas in the shale that lies deep below the surface of Western Pennsylvania could create jobs in the region for years to come while providing royalty payments to property owners for the gas rights, say officials with local companies involved in the process.

"Natural gas production and development will have its place in the energy mix for decades as our country continues to try and develop alternative sources of energy," said Christopher Fiano, vice president and chief financial officer of Penneco Oil Co. in Delmont, which locates, develops, produces and markets natural gas and crude oil.

Mr. Fiano has spoken to local community organizations about the potential benefits of drilling into the rock formation, called Marcellus shale, which has been estimated to contain trillions of cubic feet of natural gas.

Chad Mackert, with Dale Property Services Penn LLC in Canonsburg, said landowners are already leasing their properties in Westmoreland, Allegheny, Greene, Fayette and Washington counties for natural gas wells, and the push is on to get more people interested.

"This is certainly an opportunity for someone to benefit from the gas rights they possibly own," he said. "We feel that helping landowners understand the drilling process will help them, and we have community meetings in order to facilitate this. We are currently talking to hundreds of people across the country to help educate them on this process and that they may have a possible opportunity ahead of them."

The process involves obtaining gas rights, evaluating areas to find the best locations and drilling. High-pressure water mixed with sand expands and holds open the fractures in the shale configuration, allowing the natural gas to flow more freely.

Some environmental groups have expressed concern about the potential impact the drilling may have on the land and water. Possible contamination of water wells also has been cited as a concern.

In Western Pennsylvania, Marcellus shale generally is found at depths of about 6,000 feet, and new drilling technology is making it possible to release the natural gas it contains. In 2003, Pennsylvania's first experimental Marcellus well was drilled in Washington County, using hydraulic fracturing methods that worked in Texas. The well first produced in 2005, and more Marcellus wells have since been drilled in Pennsylvania, particularly in the northeast.

But it wasn't until early 2008 that Terry Englander, a geoscience professor at Penn State University, and Gary Lash, geology professor at State University of New York at Fredonia, published a surprising statistic: They estimated that the Marcellus shale contains more than 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas 4,000 to nearly 9,000 feet below ground, in formations 50 to 200 feet thick. According to a Pennsylvania Geological Survey map on geology.com, most of Westmoreland County is believed to have a formation 100 to 150 feet thick. In Allegheny County, it is estimated to be 50 to 100 feet thick.

According to the report, if 10 percent of that gas is recovered, it may have a worth of more than $1 trillion and fuel the United States for two years.

"In a perfect world, you wish you could retrieve much more than 10 percent, but current recovery methods preclude this," Mr. Fiano said.

In addition to jobs directly related to the natural gas extraction, developers said, other jobs will be created in related services, including construction, engineering and surveying, environmental permitting, gas well servicing, water hauling, waste management, maintenance and repair, and legal services.

"This will help create more jobs and energy for our Western Pennsylvania and surrounding communities," Mr. Fiano said.

Freelance writer Sarah Eidemiller can be reached in care of suburbanliving@post-gazette.com .


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