Out of gas: Boom goes bust

Date: February 28, 2011

Encana’s decision to cease operations in the county and state may signal the end.

MATT HUGHES mhughes@timesleader.com


Luzerne County has seen one natural resource boom come and go. It may not see another.

Encana Natural Gas, the only company to drill a Marcellus Shale gas well in Luzerne County, announced Thursday that it is ceasing operations in the county and Pennsylvania. With the exception of some activity on its borders, the departure of Encana from the Back Mountain may signal the end of natural gas drilling in Luzerne County in the foreseeable future.

“Not all shale is created equal,” Penn State geoscientist Dr. Michael A. Arthur told reporters at a Marcellus Shale conference in Williamsport Wednesday. “There\’s a feeling that gas is where you find it, and that anywhere you drill in the Marcellus the yield is the same, but that might not be true.”

Missed the mark

Though the entire county sits atop the Marcellus Shale, it lies near the southwestern edge of a smaller zone, in which scientists and natural gas drillers have predicted drilling to be economically worthwhile. Encana drilled its exploratory wells in Lake and Fairmont townships, near that median.

“Over time, we\’ve seen the industry trying to define where the limits of where the Marcellus play are,” said Dave Messersmith, an educator with Penn State University Cooperative Extension and a member of Penn State\’s Marcellus Education Team.

“So we have a basic understanding of the geology, but in many cases, it really takes some exploratory wells to really understand what the potential is,” he said.

Messersmith said he expects to see companies drill more exploratory wells to define the edges of the economically viable shale play in Northeastern Pennsylvania generally.

“It\’s a highly speculative business, especially in the early stages of a play\’s development,” Messersmith said, adding that cases like Encana\’s are “pretty common within the industry. We haven\’t seen a lot of that happen in Pennsylvania, but obviously, as the years pass, we will see industry continue to look at the edges of the play.”

Encana\’s experience offers a good indication that the shale\’s pay zone lies beyond the county, Wilkes University Geology and Chemistry Professor Brian Redmond said.

“The prospects of finding a large quantity of natural gas in Luzerne County probably plummeted as a result of Encana,” Redmond said. “It was worth the shot; it just apparently didn\’t pay off.”

Redmond said the decision of gas companies to drill in an area is dependent on two factors: “the quantity of gas that\’s there,” and “how much pain do you have to go through to get to it.”

Encana didn\’t have to tackle the second question, he said, because the company found there wasn\’t enough gas below its exploratory wells in Lake and Fairmont townships to keep the company in the area.

Too hot, too deep

Ironically, the formation of anthracite coal, the natural resource that fueled the growth of the county in the 19th and early 20th centuries, also destroyed most commercially viable quantities of natural gas beneath the valley, Redmond said.

Redmond said that the collision of two continents hundreds of millions of years ago created the ancient Appalachian Mountains and, in Northeastern Pennsylvania, converted bituminous coal into anthracite. That process created tremendous heat and pressure, he said.

“The Marcellus Shale is organic rich, and so, as a result of heat and compression, much of the organic matter would have been converted into methane gas,” Redmond said. “The problem is, you can overdo it. If you heat and compress the gas too much, the same process that creates it can also drive it out.”

The folding of land that created the valley also contributed to gas escaping, Redmond said.

“As you fold the rock, you also fracture the rock, and that would allow the gas to escape,” he said.

Beneath the Wyoming Valley, conventional knowledge dictates that the temperatures and pressure was too intense for gas to survive, Redmond said. To the west of the Susquehanna River, the shale begins to dive much more deeply below the earth\’s surface, making drilling less economical. Encana, Redmond said, perhaps taking into account historical reports of pockets of methane discovered in area coal mines, hoped to plant its straw in the edge of the gas-rich Marcellus.

Gone for good?

Now that Encana has turned up empty, however, Redmond said it is unlikely the county will see further drilling activity in the near future, except, perhaps, on it borders.

“If you can\’t find sufficient quantities where they were, it would not make sense to come closer to the valley,” Redmond said. “It gets even deeper.”

The Marcellus Shale lies between 5,000 and 6,000 feet beneath Encana\’s test wells, Redmond said, but further west, it gets much deeper. The same processes that “cooked” the gas in the area would have had the same effect on other shales as well, including the deeper Utica Shale.“If the price of natural gas skyrockets, then people might be interested in the deeper gas, and as the technology improves and it becomes cheaper to drill,” Redmond said. “I doubt there\’s much interest in that now because there are other easier places to look.”

Copyright: Times Leader

Joe Price
Attorney Joe Price is a seasoned Trial Lawyer serving Northeast, Central and Southeast Pennsylvania for the past forty (40) years. He has handled serious personal injury cases in courts throughout the Federal system including New Jersey and New York. Attorney Price is A.V. Rated by Martindale Hubble. He is Board Certified in Civil Practice by the National Board of Trial Advocacy since 1996.