Industry Fields Fracking Questions

No documented water contamination, gas panelist says

Morgantown Dominion Post
11 July 2012
By David Beard

On the same day Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced the membership of his Natural Gas Vehicle Task Force, the industry advocacy group, Energize West Virginia with Natural Gas, held its first 2012 town hall at the Morgantown Ramada Inn.

The timing was coincidental — the forum had been planned for some time — but highlighted the ongoing importance of the Marcellus shale industry to the state’s economic future.

The Tuesday evening forum drew several dozen people — some outspokenly for or against the gas industry — for an overview on fracking and a Q&A session.

Kim Lawrence, with Energize West Virginia, reviewed some of the technology and bright economic forecasts regarding the Marcellus shale industry — reported frequently in The Dominion Post — noting the industry has generated 7,600 new West Virginia jobs in the past five years: The natural gas workforce now totals 37,600 jobs.

Audience member Renee Hernandez, of Morgantown, protested fracking at several public meetings and was chastised by other audience members and panelists several times Monday for disrupting the program. She raised the issue of a 2010 lawsuit filed against Texasbased Southwestern Energy Co. alleging faulty cement on a well casing led to contamination of a northeast Pennsylvania aquifer.

Panelist Kyle Mork, with Energy Corporation of America, responded, “As an industry, we really stand behind [the fact] there has been no documented instance of contamination from fracking or frack fluid.”

Another audience member complained that gas well production has led to higher chloride and other contaminant levels in streams in some areas, but the state and industry have been slow to take action.

Panelist Mike John — president of Northeast Natural Energy, which operates two wells in Morgantown Industrial Park and two more in Blacksville — said landowners should insist on water tests before any production begins. Measurable data in hand is the best way to track potential contamination.

“I’ve lived my whole life in West Virginia,” John said, “and everyone working for my company lives here too.”

Many fielded technical questions about the size of well pads, how much of the formation’s gas can be captured from a site — answers ranged from 25-50 percent — to what property buyers should do to protect themselves when negotiating a deal.

On the land question, Bowles Rice attorney Britt Freund said to make sure an attorney does a good title search to establish clear ownership of the property in question.

Natural gas prices remain at historic lows, and companies are shifting their focus from dry gas areas — including Mon, Marion and Preston counties — to the richer, wet gas found along the Ohio River, the Northern Panhandle and into Ohio.

The Dominion Post asked Morgantown’s Scott Rotruck, with Chesapeake Energy, what that means to the optimistic economic forecasts for the state. He said Chesapeake is still working the wet gas in Wetzel County and up into the Panhandle. Eventually prices will go up and drilling the dry gas will resume.

Meanwhile, he told the crowd and repeated to The Dominion Post, the industry and the governor are promoting the future of natural gas vehicles. Tomblin’s task force will study the feasibility of converting the state’s vehicle fleet to natural gas fuel. Rotruck is one of the 15 appointed members of the task force.

Jim Kotcon, with the Sierra Club, mentioned a time when about a third of WVU’s vehicle fleet was powered by natural gas, but policy changes shifted it all back to petroleum. What’s to stop that from happening again, he asked.

Economics was the answer. At one time, natural gas couldn’t compete with oil, but now it’s far cheaper. And the horizontal drilling-hydraulic fracking combo make it abundant. There are rich shale plays across the country, and the Marcellus and Utica under West Virginia and its neighbors combine to make the largest gas reserve in the world.

John said, “Fracking has completely changed the paradigm of how our country looks at natural gas as a resource. This resource is huge. It’s right here underneath our feet.”