With all this natural gas, who needs oil?
It's home-grown, plentiful, and touted as the best way to wean the US off Mideast oil. But there are limits to how far the US can tilt toward a natural gas economy.
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But in the mid-2000s, oil and gas companies, armed with new technology, started eyeing gas reserves entombed in shale. This included the Marcellus formation, one of the nation's largest shale deposits, a vast bed that stretches across Appalachia and into northern Pennsylvania.Skip to next paragraph
To extract the gas, companies use a combination of directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing, also called "fracking." They drill down vertically until they hit the shale layer. Then the bit moves horizontally to follow the bed of gas-bearing rock. A "perforation gun" is fed through the bored hole, which uses small projectiles to puncture holes in the casing that lines the well. Millions of gallons of chemically treated water and sand are then injected under high pressure to fracture the shale and release the gas for pumping to the surface.
In the past few years, companies have turned Bradford County into something of a pincushion, drilling more than 1,000 natural gas wells. That, in turn, has brought jobs and flourishing commerce. Local businesses are thriving. The area's restaurants and hotels are full. Almost overnight, the county's property-tax base has increased by more than $35 million.
At Sugar Branch Farms in the town of Columbia Cross Roads, royalties from four wells have allowed the Van Blarcom family to invest in a new dairy barn and milking parlor.
"The most visible thing we deal with day to day is the local economy," says Rich Van Blarcom, who runs the 500-cow farm with his father and brother-in-law. "Everybody who wants to work has a job. As an employee, that's good. As an employer, it's not necessarily good. We have a hard time finding good employees, and we especially have a hard time finding mechanics to work on our equipment."
Other problems have surfaced in Bradford County as well, from traffic jams in the usually tranquil county seat of Towanda to dust and deteriorating roads caused by the heavy trucks that rumble between drilling sites. Property values have soared, but so, too, have rents. Then, there are the handful of wells that went wrong.
The Vargson place in Granville Summit (pop. 940) is just a few miles from the Van Blarcom farm. In 2008, Chesapeake Energy, after signing an agreement with the family, drilled a well a few hundred feet from their barn. For the first year, everything was fine. The machines on the pad wicked thousands of cubic feet of natural gas from the earth. The Vargsons received royalty checks of more than a $1,000 a month. Then in June 2010, according to Ms. Vargson, a maintenance crew came to work on the well.
"Whatever that crew did, afterward our water changed – there was a lot of pressure and air that hadn't been there before," she says. "It was strong enough that it would knock a cup right out of your hand."
Chesapeake sent a crew to check the water wellhead. "In three to five seconds, every bell and whistle on that meter started going off," she says.
The company began providing the Vargsons with bottled drinking water, contacted Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection, and started what they call a "comprehensive investigation." When it was done, they "found no issues with the integrity of any Chesapeake gas wells in the area of the Vargsons," according to a statement from Matt Sheppard, Chesapeake's senior director of corporate development. The company also says the methane in the well water is "significantly different" from the methane coming from the gas well.
Their investigation did turn up two abandoned "historic gas wells" on property near the Vargson farm. Chesapeake believes they are a possible source for the methane in the Vargsons' water supply.