Interest in West Virginia’s Marcellus Now Focused on North

If you look at the overall map of Marcellus Shale permits in West Virginia, it seems to be a topic of concern for most of the state. Looking at the map below of data obtained by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) Oil and Gas Dataviewer, it isn’t surprising to note that such permits have been issued in 46 out of 55 counties in the Mountain State (1):

WV Marcellus Permits Issued:  2005 to 3-2012 (large)
Marcellus Shale permits issued in West Virginia from 2005 to 3-20-2012

I was curious to see how the distribution looked over time, and was surprised to notice a pronounced contraction of the area of interest:

Marcellus Shale permits issued in WV by year

West Virginia Marcellus Shale permits issued by year, showing data by county and average latitude and longitude of each permitted location. Click image to view full size PDF.

While the majority of the state has been explored over the past seven years, the entire southwestern portion has been abandoned in terms of the Marcellus Shale (2), and the average latitude and longitude of all permits issued in 2011 is less than 20 miles from the Pennsylvania border.

To illustrate the trend, let’s take a closer look at Kanawha County, which is the most southwestern county with any shade of blue in the 2011 map.  In 2007 and 2008, it led the way among all West Virginia counties with 29 and 48 permits issued, respectively, and the average permitted location was just one county to the northeast.  Three years later, the number of new permits in Kanawha had dwindled to just one.

In contrast, Marshall County (the southernmost county in the panhandle) and Wetzel County (just to the south of Marshall) generated very little interest in the early exploration of West Virginia’s Marcellus Shale hydrocarbons, but by 2011, they were the top two counties in terms of permits issued.

This all begs the question of why the southwestern portion of the state is abandoned.  While I don’t have access to production data, I assume that wells that were drilled in that area yielded disappointing returns on industry investments, or else efforts to extract resources would have continued.  A colleague noted that the abandoned territory also happens to be the heart of West Virginia’s coal country, so perhaps there was some interference between the two extractive industries.  This could be a contributing factor, but it is difficult to imagine a situation in which drillers would totally cede an eight county area to miners without massive compensation.

Lacking further data, it may not be possible to know the full story of what happened between 2008 and 2011 in southwestern West Virginia.  But there is one thing that we know for sure:  for all intents and purposes, the recoverable portion of the Marcellus Shale is smaller than we used to think.

  1. The WVDEP data is fairly sloppy, as some of the permitted locations are actually in adjacent states, and 373 of the 2472 records downloaded (15 percent) on 3-20-2012 lacked permit issue dates. It is possible that these dates could be obtained from the alternative data source of The Oil and Gas Dataviewer was preferred because it was possible to select for permits issued, and because the location data were in longitude and latitude rather than universal transverse Mercator.
  2. County data is not included in the original data, but it is encoded in the well API number.  Of necessity, the entries without permit issue dates were omitted from this analysis.
Shale gas plays with Utica in blue

Stepping into the Utica Shale

By Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH

I recently had the honor of presenting to a well-informed and concerned audience of residents, media, academics, non-profits, and industry personnel in the town of Alliance in Northeastern Ohio. The reason I was asked to participate in this public meeting was to provide some insight into how drilling has progressed in Pennsylvania from a public health perspective. While Ohio doesn’t really have much Marcellus Shale activity, the industry has been ramping up their efforts in the Utica Shale, which is situated approximately 6,500 feet beneath Alliance and below the Marcellus formation. See the map below of all known U.S. shale plays; the Utica has been shaded blue.

Shale gas plays with Utica in blue

Shale gas plays in continental U.S., with Utica in blue

Also on the agenda that evening were two experts in their fields: Dr. Jeffrey Dick, Chair of the Geology and Environmental Science department at Youngstown State University, who spoke about the hydraulic fracturing process and the available research regarding its impacts from a geological and hydrological perspective; and Dr. Theodore Voneida, professor emeritus of Neurobiology at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine, who discussed medical concerns with a very moving talk and follow-up video.

The event began as expected – with an air of fear present as to what this consortium of speakers would say about such a potential money-maker for certain mineral rights owners and the local economy. What surprised me by the end of the presentations was the intuitive discussion among residents and attendees of their experiences with the industry and landsmen. (Landsmen are the personnel hired by the gas drilling companies to persuade mineral rights owners to lease their property for natural gas extraction purposes. Historically, there have been many complaints raised about the transparency of the process and the unscrupulous nature of these contracted employees.) Alliance’s residents reported similar experiences. Some were told, “all of your neighbors have leased, so we’ll get the gas out one way or another.” When, in fact, those neighbors (also present at the meeting) had not signed, but were given the same spiel about why they should lease their mineral rights to one company in particular.

The most unfortunate part about witnessing this discussion was the realization that I had heard it all before: in 2009 and 2010 when drilling activity intensified in PA and WV. In fact, residents’ concerns and frustrations were significant driving forces behind the development of FracTracker. People craved access to easy to understand and transparent information about the pace of lease, drilling, and its associated risks. I truly hope that we’ve begun to provide what is needed to make well-informed decisions about natural gas drilling since that time.

Shale gas drilling activity is increasing quickly in Ohio. According to Dr. Dick, there were six drilling rigs working the region in November 2011. By late February 2012, 18 rigs were at work and 76 wells have been permitted. At least 10 different companies are aiming to exploit the Utica Shale in 18 counties of Eastern Ohio. With no end to this surge in site, FracTracker will strive to respond with an increase in Ohio data sets, snapshots, and stories that will keep everyone better informed.

Additional Resources:

Author Information:
Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH — Communications Specialist, FracTracker; Doctorate of Public Health Student, University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health Department. Samantha can be reached by email: or phone: 412-648-8541.

Where Does the Waste From PA’s Marcellus Wells Go?

A new dataset has been added to FracTracker’s DataTool which aggregates the waste produced by Marcellus Shale wells in Pennsylvania in the last half of 2011 by the facilities that receive them. And while all of this waste was produced within the Commonwealth, the waste products are disposed of over a wide geographical area, spanning six states:

Note: Due to a change in FracTracker’s mapping utility, data from the last half of 2011 has been replaced by data from the first half of 2013 in the map above.  Please press the expanding arrows icon in the top-right corner of the map to access full controls.

One can only guess at the business decisions involved with the shipping of large quantities of waste from Pennsylvania to eastern New Jersey or southern West Virginia. In other shale plays, the majority of waste is disposed of through deep well injections nearby, but it has long been known that Pennsylvania’s geology is unsuitable for these wells (see page 67 of this 2009 report, for example). And the 4.0 New Year’s Eve temblor near caused by waste fluid injection near Youngstown, Ohio has residents and officials in the Buckeye State thinking much the same.

State receiving Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale waste produced from July to December 2011

In the chart above, solid waste is measured in tons while liquid waste is measured in barrels. In terms of solid waste, the majority–218,000 tons–is actually shipped out of state.  On the other hand, most of the liquid waste is dealt with in Pennsylvania (15.1 million barrels), but the 1.7 million barrels sent to Ohio is certainly significant. The 3.5 million barrels sent to an “unspecified location” is actually good news: the vast majority of that is recycled for use in subsequent wells. Not only does this give operators something constructive to do with the waste they produce, it also helps preserve fresh water resources in the region by offsetting water withdrawals.   Here is the same data arranged to show the various methods of disposal:

PA Marcellus Shale waste disposal by method, July-December 2011

While the recycling efforts are starting to make a dent in the overall picture of how Pennsylvania handles its Marcellus Shale waste fluids, it still far from being the primary means of disposal. In fact, two thirds of the liquid waste produced is still being treated at brine and industrial waste facilities, which have a questionable ability to remove total dissolved solids, heavy metals, and other contaminants from waste water, which ultimately works its way back into Pennsylvania’s rivers and streams.

NY Local Land Use Laws Upheld in Challenges to Municipal Drilling Prohibitions

Karen Edelstein, NYS FracTracker Liaison

Click to enlarge map

New York State has had a long history of natural gas drilling. The earliest gas wells were drilled in Fredonia, NY in 1825, and by 1857, engineers had discovered that if they fractured rock layers at the base of a gas well, the process stimulated greater flow of gas from the rock strata. Natural gas has been a common source of fuel for both heat and lighting for many years, and many rural properties in central and western New York have been leased and drilled. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation lists nearly 40,000 wells in their database. While slightly fewer than half of those wells are now plugged and abandoned, many are still in production. Virtually all of these wells are vertical, conventionally drilled gas wells.

In around 2005, a new wave of gas leasing began in New York State. Companies conducted seismic testing throughout the rural countryside, with “thumper trucks” moving in slow formations along town roads, and helicopters canvassing the region dropping their cargoes of cables that were unrolled across fields and forests to aid in further assessment. Simultaneously, “landsmen”—hired by the gas industries—were going door-to-door, offering leasing deals to homeowners. Promoting a rationale of “energy independence” and appealing signing bonuses, the landsmen were successful in convincing tens of thousands of rural New Yorkers to lease their land for natural gas. With a history of conventional, vertical gas drilling in the area, many landowners did not consider asking an attorney to review the new leases. Furthermore, no mention was made of the recently-developed process of gas extraction: high volume, slickwater, horizontal hydraulic fracturing (HVHF), a technique that industry would want to use for natural gas extraction in the Marcellus Shale.

As awareness about the new extraction process, combining high volume, chemically-enhanced, hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling, began to spread among New York State communities, local decision-makers and citizen groups became concerned about risks inherent to the method. Troubling stories of polluted air and drinking water, impacts to human- and livestock health, and economic and social woes connected with rapid industrialization of rural communities spread from Pennsylvania, Colorado, Texas, and Wyoming, where HVHF was well underway.

Yet in New York State, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) houses divisions that potentially work at cross-purposes with each other — one making laws that encourage mineral extraction, and the other that is supposed to oversee protection of land and water resources. Concerned citizens also became aware that changes to the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, promulgated during the recent Bush administration, now exempted oil and gas drilling. Would there be any legal means of standing up against potentially disastrous industrialization of our rural landscape?

Investigative journalists including Ian Urbina (New York Times) and Abram Lustgarten (ProPublica) published hard-hitting articles that time and again confirmed that New York had a lot to be concerned about if wide-spread HVHF were to come to our state. Scientists stepped forward with additional information that the DEC had not supplied in their draft environmental impact statements. Citizen committees formed to discuss both the science and the social implications of allowing wide-spread gas drilling in our communities.

New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation laws prevent local governments from regulating oil and gas development. However, home rule rights are also accorded to local governments. While, by law, municipalities cannot regulate industry, many attorneys are now arguing that towns can, on behalf of the health and well-being of their constituents, determine land use laws through zoning and other ordinances. Some of these land use laws may result in effectively banning activities such as HVHF in those towns.

The towns of Dryden (in Tompkins County, NY), and Middlefield (in Otsego County, NY) were two of more than twenty towns that put laws in place in the past year that banned HVHF. In the fall of 2011, Denver-based Anschutz Exploration Corporation sued the Town of Dryden, saying that state laws allowing for drilling pre-empted municipal laws. On February 21, 2012, State Supreme Court Judge Rumsey upheld Dryden’s right to set their own zoning regulations against HVHF stating, “Nowhere in legislative history provided to the court is there any suggestion that the Legislature intended — as argued by Anschutz — to encourage the maximum ultimate recovery of oil and gas regardless of other considerations, or to preempt local zoning authority.”

In Otsego County, the situation was slightly different. A local dairy farmer, who had leased her land sued the Town of Middlefield, asserting that the Town’s ban prevented her from enjoying the full value of her property. Just a week following the Dryden decision, a different judge ruled in the Middlefield case, and decided in favor of the town. Because drilling had not yet begun, the situation could not be considered a “takings.” The judge felt that while New York State can dictate (through regulations) how any industry operates, it is up to the town to decide where those industrial activities may take place.

Until the cases are heard in the Court of Appeals, these decisions stand as the opinion of the courts, but it is possible that there will be additional suits in the lower courts before a final decision is reached that will set the standard statewide. Nonetheless, the Dryden and Middlefield decisions clearly show that the lower courts support local community rights.

Although lawsuits are costly, the towns’ legal efforts have been supplemented by organizations that support the bans, and their costs have been reduced through the generous support of ordinary people. The prospect of additional suits has not deterred New York State’s municipalities from passing bans and moratoria preventing HVHF. To date, 21 towns have established bans, and more than 50 towns have enacted moratoria. Nearly 60 additional towns are in the process of developing bans or moratoria. See below for a map-in-progress within of the areas where bans and moratoria are in place or in development:

Progress of New York State towns enacting home rule to control impacts of high volume hydraulic fracturing for natural gas: