Untapped resource could meet U.S. energy needs for 20 years

By Eric Gibble
September 26, 2010

For the past century, the natural gas located thousands of feet below the ground in the Marcellus Shale formation has been mostly untapped in Pennsylvania. It has the potential to bring a natural gas “gold rush,” according to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. However, extensive drilling has not occurred because technology was not advanced enough to reach it.

“The Marcellus Shale is a particular formation of sedimentary rock that underlies parts of Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, West Virginia and parts of Ohio. Embedded in this sedimentary rock is natural gas,” Dr. Caroline Nielsen, assistant professor of biology, said. “It’s one of the biggest that’s become available in recent years.”

Millions of years ago, sand and silt fell to the bottom of the ocean along with dead organisms like algae and plankton. As this material builds up, it becomes compressed into shale. The dead organisms then transform into natural gas.

“The reason it’s become an issue so recently is not because people didn’t know it was down there but rather because the technology has changed,” Nielsen said. “We didn’t have the technology to get it out in a way that would be economically viable. But now we have this new process called hydraulic fractionation.”

Hydraulic fractionation is a controversial technique already used to extract natural gas in other states like Colorado and Texas. Oil companies pump water into the ground through a gas well with carcinogenic chemicals to break up the shale and take out the natural gas.

Carcinogenic chemicals cause cancer and a portion of the water that contains it remains in the ground. Yet the resource is so profitable that little regulation of it has been placed on oil companies by the state. Just this past June in Clearfield County, Pa., a gas well blew out and spewed polluted water for 16 hours.

“The amount of natural gas currently thought present in Marsellus Shale would supply the United States energy for 20 years but with the amount of gas and people power available, energy companies could actually be drilling for natural gas for the next 100 years. So that’s huge, and there’s a lot of money to be made by extracting this natural gas. Because of that, these energy companies are trying to extract it,” Dr. David Dunbar, associate professor of biology, said.

One of the agreements made this summer to pass the final 2010-2011 Pennsylvania state budget on time was to enact a natural gas severance tax by Oct. 1. Pennsylvania is the only major natural gas-producing state without a severance tax. This tax is placed on non-renewable resources.

Portions of the tax would be put into the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection in a fund that would be used in case of another potential well blowout. Pennsylvania House majority leader Rep. Todd Eachus, D-Luzerne, stated in an Associated Press article on Saturday that he plans to introduce a severance tax to the General Assembly as soon as next week.

Dr. Shelby Hockenberry, assistant professor of political science, noted that this is an unprecedented time for Pennsylvania.

“We haven’t seen anything like this in our state’s history before,” Hockenberry said. “Geologists are still doing surveys. In fact, it [the Marcellus Shale] could extend out a little further. Pennsylvania has a tough road to follow politically. State regulators will have to balance the environmental implications with the potential profit to be made. An extraction tax is a difficult balancing act.”

Eric Gibble

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