[UNITED STATES] Natural gas rock formation fuels landholders' questions

It's final exam season at Fredonia State College, and geology professor Gary Lash needs to focus most of his attention on his students.

This semester, however, it's more difficult to do since he is flooded with phone calls about the Marcellus Shale region.

"I get calls every day," he said. "It keeps me from getting done all the other things I need to get done."

In February, Business First reported that Lash and research partner Terry Engelder of Pennsylvania State University unearthed findings that suggest more than 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas lies within the shale formation that stretches from New York through West Virginia.

Lash has been studying the fracturing of rock formations since 1999. His early research on the region, aided by undergraduate students, led to the larger discovery.

He said since the Feb. 8 Business First article, media outlets have been ringing his phone off the hook. Among those were The New York Times, and the week of April 28, a CNN Money crew was in town to film him for a spot.

He also gets questions from those asking how much gas might lie beneath their property.

"Mostly I've gotten calls from Chenango County, northeast Pennsylvania, a small number from Cattaraugus County and there's a good amount of interest from McKean County," he said. "People want to know when energy companies will be in their areas, drilling for gas. I give them some idea of the thickness of the Marcellus in their area, how deep it is and that sort of thing."

The callers have reasons for wanting to know - thousands of them.

In some areas, Lash said, landowners are being offered $25 an acre to have their land drilled, a pittance compared to the $3,000-per-acre rate he said is prevalent throughout northeastern Pennsylvania.

"One of the bad things that's happening with high lease prices is that they're keeping some of the smaller operators out," said Lash. "This is unfortunate, since some of the smaller operators can get in quicker, and for the landowner, the royalty starts to come in sooner."

To access the natural gas, companies such as Texas-based Range Resources Corp. drill wells.

To build a vertical well and drill costs approximately $750,000. A moderate vertical well could produce 600,000 cubic feet of natural gas a day, an amount Lash said could heat his house for five years.

He added that once the nature of the rock formations is determined, horizontal wells will make more sense to access the gas.

Horizontal drilling techniques allow companies to draw gas from beneath buildings. A horizontal well can cost $3.5 million, and Lash said one operated by Range Resources near Pittsburgh has extracted 5.8 million cubic feet of natural gas daily.

As for the deluge of phone calls from New York and Pennsylvania, Lash takes them in stride.

"This is amazing," he said of the publicity and crush of calls, adding that all the attention he's been getting is "something I'm not used to."

Source: Business First of Buffalo|by David Bertola

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