Utica shale discussion

Dr. Terry Engelder of the Department of Geosciences at Penn State University makes a point Tuesday during a meeting on the Utica Shale layer beneath Potter County, Pa. The session was presented by the Natural Gas Resource Center.

COUDERSPORT, Pa. — A full house turned out at the Gunzburger Building on Tuesday for a meeting on the Utica Shale layer beneath Potter County presented by the Natural Gas Resource Center.

More than 110 people attended the meeting, whose main speaker was Dr. Terry Engelder of the Department of Geosciences at Penn State University in State College.

Engelder said he’s never known of a subject with more disinformation available and believed by the public than hydraulic fracturing.

Though there are risks from fracking, Engelder said there are no more risks from that activity than any industrial one. Using the automobile industry as an example, Engelder spoke on the progress made in road safety over the last several decades and said that, as fracking has been employed, the process has become much safer, and will continue to do so.

One of the biggest misconceptions is the fracking process can impact water tables, Engelder said. While it is true that faulty well casings or the presence of unknown abandoned wells can cause water pollution, fractures from the fracking process occur so far underground they cannot travel all the way to underground reservoirs.

“There is not enough energy … to drive a fracture out of the Marcellus and into the groundwater,” Engelder said. The Marcellus layer is above the Utica layer which is beginning to be drilled now, and poses an even less threat from contamination than the Marcellus.

“In terms of regulation, I’m not sure it’s a good idea to produce above 4,000 feet (below ground),” Engelder said. “We likely won’t see drilling at that depth. There are small but finite risks.”

The massive quantities of water used in drilling that needs to be managed is one of these problems, according to Engelder. Some spills have occurred and air quality is an issue, though generating electricity with shale gas rather than burning coal will improve air quality overall.

But, abandoned wells are definitely a huge problem, Engelder said, and there are thousands of gas wells with unknown locations. The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is working to find and plug many of them but has limited resources to do so each year.

“All legacy wells should be plugged, regardless of how far they are from fracking,” said Engelder. “This is an industry that comes with some risks.”

Government setbacks from wells near residential and commercial properties may not be large enough in Pennsylvania, Engelder said, as other states have larger setback limits. But, there needed to be uniformity in order for the industry to be able to function. With thousands of townships across the state, it would take batteries of lawyers for each company just to review the individual municipality laws prior to drilling a well.

Despite this fact, Engelder said there is zero risk to a proposed well near Cole Memorial Hospital in Coudersport, that will be drilled on leased land with horizontal wells drilled near the hospital’s campus.

That well is proposed for the Utica Shale layer, though it is unclear at this point whether or not Potter County’s Utica gas will be profitable for companies to extract.

Some operators have already permitted to test the Utica in Potter County and the surrounding area, which is very expensive, meaning they also are hopeful of the county’s potential. Without test wells, however, it is impossible to know exactly what lies that far below the surface.

Thermal maturity matters when talking about gas quality. Engelder said there is a narrow range where substances are done just right, and the rocks have to be of the right type, as well.

“Right now, the most valuable Utica has oil in it; Potter County is a little more done — it’s dry gas,” said Engelder. “Good gas will have low water saturation.” While the Point Pleasant formation is better, Potter County Utica is likely to have a low enough water content to make it worth companies’ time to extract it, he said.

For the gas in a deposit to be economical, it must have been in the ground for the right amount of time, possess enough organic material, have expelled enough water, be thick enough and be in a layer deep enough underground.

“There has been no formal survey in Potter County yet — this is all conjecture at this point,” Engelder said.

Injection wells are another concern. They have been extensively used in Ohio, but most applications are banned in Pennsylvania, or permitting is much more difficult than for drilling. It has been proven that microearthquakes have been caused, and a direct relationship between earthquake size and water injected has been found, according to Engelder.

The positive side of natural gas production is that it can be used as a bridge fuel to liberate the United States and other countries from their dependence on burning coal and other dirty fossil fuels as the transition to renewable energy occurs.

Germany is leading the world in use of renewable energy, but Engelder said the nation has run into a problem filling the gap left by solar and wind production. Solar produces large amounts of electricity, but only during daylight hours. Without large, costly battery banks, the extra energy produced in the day cannot be used at night. Wind produces a good amount of energy, but is not constant in most areas either.

Natural gas power plants can bridge that gap, creating a stable, reliable power source for use in the night.

Engelder said he was delighted to see the turnout at the meeting, and was especially impressed with the welcome sign placed on the Coudersport Theatre in his honor.

“I was thrilled. I’ve never had that kind of welcome into a town,” he said. Engelder’s audience was made up of residents from across Potter County, as well as individuals from McKean, Tioga and Cameron counties, and further points.

In addition to Engelder’s presentation, Potter County Commissioner Paul Heimel spoke briefly on the Land Tax Equity issue, requesting the public’s support for two measures making their way through the statehouse that propose to bring more money to local municipalities through increases in the payment in lieu of taxes (P.I.L.O.T.) received on stateowned lands and a return of a percentage of funds earned from timber sales and gas leases.

In addition, Heimel touched on newlyelected Gov. Tom Wolf’s efforts to add a severance tax on unconventional gas wells. Initially, Wolf, a Democrat, did not favor eliminating the currentlyreceived impact fee which goes to counties, but he may consider discontinuing the tax.

“Our county governments need the impact fee. We’re not pro or con on the severance tax,” Heimel said.

Both efforts are being supported by the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania (CCAP), and Heimel is requesting that concerned residents make their voices heard to the Legislature and governor. More information on how to contribute to the local tax equity effort can be found at the pastatelandtaxfairness.com website, which includes breaking news and updates, information and interactive maps of several Pennsylvania counties affected by low PI.L.O.T. payments.