This article originally provided byThe Highlands Voice

August, 2008

Not Wyoming Yet:
The Marcellus Shale Gas Drilling “Play”

by Hugh Rogers

A couple of years ago, a local geologist warned us about radon. A radioactive gas, radon may be harmless in small quantities but carcinogenic if it builds up in your basement. The geologist told us that radon leaks from the 365 million-year-old black shale that underlies this part of Randolph County.

Some health-related web sites call radon “the silent killer.” You might know it as NORM, “naturally occurring radioactive material.” For about $15, you can get a test kit at a hardware store to see if radon in your house is within safe limits. If it isn’t, you’d better find a way to vent it.

This low-level hazard wasn’t much talked about until last month, when the general public became aware that the natural gas industry had focused on a black shale, the Marcellus Formation. Radiation suddenly appeared in a constellation of dangers the new gas rush could bring. For everyone living above the black shale—it covers 54,000 square miles from southern New York across Pennsylvania to Ohio and West Virginia—the situation was no longer NORMal, and the public was no longer silent.

On July 11 in Elkins, the West Virginia Farm Bureau sponsored a meeting of landowners from seven counties who had been approached by agents for gas companies seeking mineral rights. Though they moved across the street to a bigger auditorium, still more than two hundred people were turned away. A make-up meeting was to be held on August 1.

The Farm Bureau brought Charleston lawyer David McMahon to talk about leases, bargaining, and the environmental impact of drilling. Dave is the expert on oil and gas law in this state and the founder, with a few allies, of the West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization. For the best information on a rapidly changing story (with pictures of what can go wrong), consult their web site,

The landowners’ chief interest was the money. “I came to see what the royalties should be and what other people are being offered,” said a man whose grandfather had been approached by gas company agents. Most people knew by then that the old lease rate of $5 per acre was obsolete—but how high would the bidding go? According to the Pocahontas Times, offers in that county have reached $1000 per acre. In northeastern Pennsylvania, where the Marcellus Shale is thicker and easier to drill, it’s up to $3000. Royalty rates have climbed as well, from one-eighth of proceeds to eighteen or twenty percent.

No wonder the excitement is contagious.

Neighbors, though, have other concerns. A recent e-mail from Pocahontas County: “I’m sick. I just learned that the whole mountain right above me—2500 acres—has been leased. SORO has a picture of a Marcellus Shale drilling site in Upshur Co. I’m amazed, because I thought they had just started leasing the mineral rights, and this indicates they have been around for some time. Sure wish I had known. All I have to do is show a picture of it to a landowner and they want no part of it.”

The picture conveys only the size of the rig. Everything is bigger: the “footprint” of the drilling site, the depth of the reservoir, and especially the cost. The old shallow wells, drilled to 2,000 to 3,000 feet, cost about $100 per foot—so the investment might be around $300,000. A typical Marcellus Shale well goes down over a mile and costs from $1.5 to $3 million or more.

High gas prices and exhaustion of the old gas fields have brought new technology and corporations from Texas. This is where the action is now. They call gas field development a “play,” which gives you a sense of their relish for the gamble. But they’re happy to improve the odds however they can. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 canceled drillers’ liabilities under the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Superfund law, and other environmental regulations, including the Safe Drinking Water Act. Go get that gas! said the Bush administration. Since the law went into effect, hundreds of drilling sites in the president’s home state of Texas have been contaminated by radioactivity, and towns in the vice president’s home state of Wyoming have had their drinking water polluted by drilling chemicals.

Water use is the most serious concern raised so far. To release the gas, drillers fracture the shale with high-pressure injections of water mixed with sand and chemical additives. Each “frac” uses roughly a million gallons of water, but three times that for wells that turn a right angle and bore into the shale layer (the horizontal wells). And each well may be “fracked” multiple times.

Where will all that water come from? Already, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has shut down two wells that drew excessive quantities of water from nearby streams. (The companies filed new permit plans and resumed operations.) That state and New York belong to interstate compacts, the Susquehanna and Delaware River Basin Commissions, that help protect their water. The Ohio River Basin has no such protection.

Where will the water go after it’s used? And what’s in it, anyway? Though the formulas for fracking fluids are proprietary, some chemists have analyzed samples; one who testified in Congress listed 171 chemicals, of which 154 were linked to health problems including nervous system disorders, cancers, and reproductive organ damage.

Treatment facilities are part of the infrastructure required for the new gas rush. Pennsylvania has two; there are proposals to build more. Meanwhile, their DEP has ordered municipal sewer systems not to take drilling waste unless they know what’s in it and know they can treat it. Most of those systems had already declined the extra burden.

So far, direct impacts to drinking water have been regarded as less problematic than spills or dumping of waste (though the Wyoming example is alarming). The Marcellus Shale lies far below aquifers. However, landowners have been cautioned to test their wells before drilling begins so there is a baseline to compare the effects.

NORMs aren’t the only pollutants associated with deep well drilling. Radioactive material brought up with the gas settles in treatment ponds and on equipment. Other pollutants spread with dust and smoke and any burning- off of excess gases. Air pollution can spread as far as a 200-mile radius from a well. For a list of gas well pollutants, their sources and effects, see the Oil and Gas Accountability Project web site,

Accidents including fires, explosions, and pipe failures are regarded by the oil and gas industry as “inherent risks” of drilling. Look for that language in your lease contract! Accidents further multiply the risks of pollutants. Recently in Colorado an emergency room nurse collapsed after treating an injured drilling worker. Breathing too close to the worker’s chemical-soaked clothing caused heart, lung, and liver failure.

Development will have a variety of impacts we can barely foresee and haven’t prepared for. The noise, dust, and fumes from 24- hour drilling and truck traffic; the influx of temporary workers; and the fragmentation of forested land and loss of habitat are a few we can anticipate. An industry-funded study found that in an intensively drilled section of Wyoming the deer population had declined by nearly half.

How big will it be? Nobody knows. The president of the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Association told reporter Don Hopey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “The order-of-magnitude differences in [predictions of] the amount of gas we could get out of the Marcellus tells you that no one knows how much or if it’s economically recoverable. But with more than $2 billion already invested in wells and leases, it’s clear that those who have taken the time and studied the data believe this is a very significant opportunity . . .”

Bets have been made, in other words. Gambling is addictive. Very few wells have produced anything yet, but hundreds are being drilled. According to the West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey, “There is virtually no data available on Marcellus production for West Virginia.” Permits for horizontal wells have been issued in at least seventeen counties. The north-central part of the state has been the most active. Significant commercial production may have to wait for the infrastructure to catch up—compressor stations and pipelines as well as wastewater treatment facilities.

What else has to catch up? Law and enforcement, most importantly. With the Energy Act of 2005, the federal government abdicated its responsibility. The states will have to step in.

New York, which has seen a land rush along its Southern Tier of counties, recently enacted new legislation on gas well permits, and the governor ordered the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation to devise a tougher environmental impact statement for hydraulic drilling. Besides water issues, new regulations will address cumulative effects, air quality, aesthetics, noise, traffic, and community character.

The governor’s deputy secretary for the environment was quoted as saying, “We’re not Wyoming, no offense to Wyoming.”

At the Elkins meeting on July 11, Senator Clark Barnes said, “Our laws were set up decades ago to benefit out of state investors to allow them to extract minerals and gas and it really trounced the rights of surface owners.” He didn’t say what efforts he’d make to improve the situation. Nor did he address the rights of all citizens to clean water, clean air, a healthy environment, and plenty of deer.

We’re not Wyoming—yet.


West Virginia Surface Owners' Rights Organization
1500 Dixie Street, Charleston, West Virginia 25311