Group Seeks Support for Marcellus Shale Drilling

Charleston Gazette
25 May 2011
By The Associated Press

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's natural gas industry launched a wide-ranging appeal for public support Wednesday in response to growing interest in the state's portion of the rich Marcellus Shale field.

The Just Beneath the Surface alliance aims to tout the industry's economic contributions while addressing concerns over the methods used to tap the Marcellus. The campaign features a website, promotional ads and other means to spread its message.

"Historically, we've kept a low profile but with the advent of Marcellus Shale, we felt compelled to make more of a name and show more pride in what we do in West Virginia,'' said Michael McCown, president of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia.

Gas drilling has long roots in West Virginia, though it's been overshadowed by the state's coal industry. But both Marcellus and the ongoing debate over a national energy policy have increased this other fossil fuel's profile.

The massive Marcellus Shale formation sprawls deep beneath much of West Virginia as well Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio. It is considered the biggest natural gas discovery in at least a generation, with enough recoverable reserves to supply the entire East Coast for 50 years.

The economic benefits include 35,000 industry-related jobs, with average annual salaries of more than $60,000 for those directly employed, McCown said. He estimated that the industry pumps $757 million annually into the state economy through wages plus another $771 million in capital investments last year. All but two of West Virginia's 55 counties host natural gas operations, which provide $177 million in severance and property taxes annually, McCown said.

McCown helped kick off the campaign with a sunny afternoon rally at the University of Charleston's Triana Field, which organizers noted is a reclaimed well site. The field is next door to offices for a division of industry leader NiSource Inc. The crowd of supporters featured several legislators from both parties, including Senate President Pro Tempore Brooks McCabe.

McCabe cited the ongoing push by acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to attract facilities that can convert ethane into ethylene. The compound ethane is removed from natural gas when it's refined, while ethylene is a widely used in chemical products. McCown's group is part of this development effort.

The Marcellus field yields ample supplies of ethane, McCown noted. Encouraging its development can help West Virginia land "cracker'' plants to convert the castoff compound, which in turn can spur spinoff employers, McCabe said.

"You're almost opening up the floodgates for revitalizing the chemical industry,'' the Kanawha County Democrat said. "The payoff is not so much those facilities as what develops downstream.''

The campaign also seeks to build public confidence in hydraulic fracturing or "fracking,'' the process that mixes high volumes of water with chemicals to crack the shale and release the gas. The industry effort plans to invoke how the process has evolved and improved since the late 1940s, and that all but 0.49 percent of fracking fluid is water and sand.

But that small amount of chemicals doesn't mean that it's safe, said Julie Archer, project manager with the West Virginia Surface Owner Rights Organization. The group has called for new rules governing Marcellus drilling, amid environmental concerns over fracking and allegations that drillers deal unfairly with those who own the land at and around well sites.

Archer cited such incidents as one in neighboring Pennsylvania, where methane gas from industry operations contaminated private water wells in the northern town of Dimock. Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. agreed to pay $4.1 million to residents in December.

Archer's group is among those urging Tomblin to convene a special legislative session devoted to Marcellus, after lawmakers failed to agree on a measure during this year's regular session.

"We need to get more regulations in place to make sure that things like that don't happen,'' Archer said. "The scale of these operations, that's a big part of the problem.''

McCown's group opposes a special session, and said existing rules can suffice until the 2012 regular session. The industry's objections helped doom this year's proposals, and McCown cited current gas prices to argue against adding regulations to conventional gas drilling to any Marcellus legislation.

"We have talked about being supportive of reasonable additional regulation regarding Marcellus Shale, and permit [fee] increases if they're warranted,'' McCown said. "We're open to additional inspectors. Our facilities are open, and can be inspected with the number of inspectors that we've got now at any time.''