The Shale Sale

This map from the USGS shows the extent of the Marcellus Shale formation that oil and natural gas companies are exploring for drilling.
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UPDATE: Sept. 2, 2012 - Jillian Risberg

Drilling in the Wayne National Forest, a win-win situation, according to an oil and gas expert.

"It'll cut down on our imports of foreign oil," says Dr. Robert Chase, chair of the Department of Petroleum Engineering and Geology at Marietta College. "It should be reducing our need to send troops overseas and we can do it in a safe fashion.

Local environmentalists don't see the need for fossil fuel but rather the desecration of the natural beauty of the woodlands.

"There are some organizations that want to prevent coal mining, they want to prevent oil and gaswell drilling but we need the energy," Chase says.

Not everyone agrees... for a retired professor, the fracking threatens the very fabric of the area.

"I do see this fracking coming our way as a threat to our local economy, I do look at it as a threat to food security and our energy security," says Rebecca Wood, who taught natural resource/watershed management and sustainable development at Hocking College.

With acres of recreational activities to enjoy, proponents of fracking are equally passioned about preserving the forest safely.

"We drink the same drinking water they do, we use the same forest, we like to hike, we like to hunt, we like to fish - so we're not going to do anything to destroy that environment," Chase says.

Experts are concerned about looking for energy elsewhere when we can tap into resources right here at home and remain a self-sufficient country.

"They seem to think it's okay to get it from someone else's backyard," Chase says. "Saudi Arabia or places like that where we have nothing but trouble so we have an opportunity to make ourselves energy independent and do it in a very safe way and protect the environment at the same time."

To frack or not to frack, that is the question... the risks are hotly contested but it's about looking beyond the headlines and understanding the deeper story.

"Don't buy the rhetoric, buy the facts," Chase says.

UPDATE: Sept. 1, 2012 - Jillian Risberg

"They have acted criminally and unethically and they have not listened to the thousands and thousands of people from our university president to our mayor to our county commissioners who say this is not okay," says Buckeye Forest Council chairwoman Heather Cantino.

The U.S. Forest Service has approved the shale drilling technique for natural gas know known as hydraulic fracturing in Wayne National Forest.

"They are the industry they are, they're not regulated as other industries are, so we are extremely concerned about the air pollution and the water contamination," Cantino says.

"We are also extremely concerned about effects on climate. Methane leakage from fracking causes greater greenhouse gas emissions than coal," Cantino says.

Forest supervisors are serious about protecting the woods and wildlife. It's their job...and think the thirteen well agreement won't hurt the forest.

"We have an abundance of restrictions to make sure it's being done in an environmentally safe manner," says supervisor Anne Carey. They'll be no surface occupancy in repairing areas. On steeper slopes there'd be restrictions. We have restrictions for endangered species, wildlife habitat, soils, the list goes on and on,"

Still, real concern exists about waste water from the fracking
injecting chemically laden materials into the underground, destroying the delicate balance of nature.

"It's taken more than 50 to 75 years for this region to recover to the level where we can have an economy based on sustainable forest products, wild edible foods, organic farming and a thriving destination spot," says Rebecca Wood, a retired Hocking College professor of natural resource/watershed management and sustainable development.

At Village Bakery in Athens, the owners worry what problems might rise from the fracking.

"Business wise the people that have been growing food for us and for the farmers market and lots of other customers I don't see that they would have any incentive to stay in an area that's turned into an industrial drilling zone," says co-owner Christine Hughes.

Without a doubt, fracking does raise concerns over how it's done. The concept isn't new, but there are new methods... designed to tap the shale...safely.

2/27/2012 6:45 P.M.

"I've been drilling wells since the 1970's," says long-time oil and gas executive Denny Harton, "and these Marcellus wells are, by far, the best I've ever seen."

Since the middle of the last decade, they've been seeking out natural gas deposits buried thousands of feet underground: a supply of gas which backers insist have the potential to not only increase our energy supply, but to create thousands of jobs.

Harton, at the appointment of the governor, has been a member of a task force on oil and gas in West Virginia.

"It could create 20,000 direct jobs and 50-60,000 indirect jobs," Harton says.

Steve Conlon operates a small business in wetzel county, an area where chesapeake energy has been drilling for several years. he says the effects of marcellus shale drilling are mixed at best.

"We're impacted by the traffic here-we're impacted by the effect it has on our employees," Conlon says. (The community) is not as desirable a place to live".

Another Wetzel County resident says the economic impact has been felt more in neighboring New Martinsville and Sistersville. Most of the drilling has been going on in the more rural parts of the county.

"That is also the location of all the motels, restaurants, gas stations and stores where a lot of gas money would be spent," says Bill Hughes. "So the businesses in the riverfront communities to the west of us tend to support this, because they don't have wells there."

Last year, the Wood County Commission approved a resolution requesting that any jobs created as a result of the Marcellus Shale go to residents from West Virginia and the region.

Harton acknowledges people from Texas were hired early on for some of those jobs. He says that was mainly because of their expertise in drilling in similar shale deposits in the lone star state.

"Over time, we hope the local contractors here will allow people here to move up that learning curve and upgrade equipment so that eventually, that will work its way through."

And while there are lease agreements on file at courthouses in Wood, Pleasants and Washington County, the major drilling has, so far, gone on north of us.

Updated 2/28/2012 6:30 P.M.

If there's one word that has dominated the discussion about Marcellus Shale drilling, it's fracking. It's a process used for more than half a century to reach otherwise unreachable energy deposits. residents who live near drilling sites say it has caused environmental harm to their communities, particularly their water supplies.

"The EPA has done several studies over the last couple of decades," says industry executive Denny Harton. "And in every single study I've seen, there has never been a reported or documented case where a frack has contaminated water supply. Not one."

At a recent conference on the technique at Marietta College, it was explained that while the water table is usually hundreds of feet below ground, the part of the well that is fractured is thousands of feet underground.

But what has residents of a rural area of Wetzel County concerned, is a different kind of fracking process used to reach the Marcellus Shale deposits of natural gas; one in which wells are eventually drilled horizontally, instead of the more traditional vertical process.

"If it's done correctly, you can greatly minimize that from happening," says resident Bill Hughes. "The greater risk is when your storing all the fracking fluids, and you have surface leak if you don't have secondary containment."

Depending on how you interpret the findings of a poll released earlier this year, Ohio residents have divided views on fracking in their home state. While an overwhelming 85% say drilling overall will create jobs, nearly three-fourths say hydro-fracking should be halted until more studies can be done to determine its environmental effects.

A Marietta College professor compares the effects of fracking, to the effects of getting a flu shot. He says while it may have a negative effect on a small group of people, the public as a whole should benefit.

"This formation is 6-8,000 feet below the surface, and the fracture we create stays down in this area," says Dr. Robert Chase, Professor of Petroleum Engineering, Marietta College. It does not go back to the surface through 8,000 feet of rock."

But it isn't just fracking that's an environmental concern. The Wetzel County residents we spoke to say drilling, at least in its early years, contributed to problems with mud buildup and damaged roads. Hughes showed us effects such as a dented guardrail: the result, he says, of trucks which got too close for comfort on narrow, winding roads.

"For the first two or three years or more, (an accident involving big trucks) was very common. There were situations where big truck after big truck on a lane and a half road. These roads just were not made for that."

"The industry stepped up and worked with the Department of Highways a couple of years ago, and helped design a system whereby roads could be bonded by the companies that were using them," Harton replies. "Predetermined amounts of money would be set aside by these companies to upgrade these roads that would be heavily traveled, and to repair them once they were finished."

Updated 2/29/2012 6:50 P.M.

After several tries at coming up with laws which would address concerns about oil and gas drilling, the West Virginia Legislature last December approved a bill which would set up permit fees for new wells, while using the money from those fees to pay for additional inspectors for the department of environmental protection. Lawmakers admit the law could be the future.

"We can always come back in 2013 and see what may or may not need to be done," Delegate John Ellem, Republican, Wood County, said recently.

A Taylor County delegate has introduced 20 bills in the current session aimed at toughening that law. But with the 2012 regular session just days from ending, most haven't proceeded beyond their introduction in early January.

And a Preston County environmental group says the law approved just before Christmas only partially addresses its concerns over what might be done with waste from marcellus shale drilling.

"It's unclear at this time how they have characterized the waste," says Amanda Pitzer, Executive Director of the group Friends of the Cheat, "what it contains, and what those impacts would be, not only short-term but long-term."

But the effects of drilling are also a concern in Ohio. Attorney General Mike DeWine recently called for tougher fines on violators of state and federal drilling laws, and for full disclosure of chemicals used in the much-discussed technique called fracking.

DeWine also said state government should be empowered to help landowners with complaints about lease agreements made with drilling companies. But an Ohio State University agent recently said some of those issues should be addressed before that agreement is signed.

"This is a process that is going to take a very long time," Cliff Little of the OSU Extension Service said at a recent public meeting in Marietta. "The negotiation will take a very long time. So don't jump in to doing everything."

It is the by-products of drilling which are the materials that would be used by a "cracker" plant, also a possible economic opportunity for West Virginia. Those chemicals could be broken down and used to manufacture consumer goods.

"The impact from construction alone is almost three and a half billion dollars," says Cam Huffman, Director of the Wood County Development Authority, "which means 8,000 jobs just from the construction phase."

Regardless of the promise, or the potential peril, of drilling in the Marcellus Shale, its ultimate success may depend on what we've learned in the past few decades, about managing our natural resources.

"I think what you're going to see in the past is that they'll turn these plants around, these plants that once turned liquefied natural gas into natural gas that we can burn," said long-time oil and gas company owner Denny Harton. "They'll pull gas of the system, liquefy it, and put it on a ship, and we may become a net exporter of natural gas. And that's good for the economy."

Eastern Ohio Congressman Bill Johnson believes state agencies are doing a good job of maintaining public health and safety, in the midst of the Marcellus Shale drilling boom.

Johnson talked to members of the Marietta Rotary Club on the issue Thursday.

He says a similar drilling rush resulted in a major increase in economic development in the Dakotas.

"You've got real estate developers who are working 13 hours a day, seven days a week, and not keep up with the demand for housing," Johnson told us. "So there's going to be a tremendous amount of job creation as a result of increasing our domestic energy production."

Congressman Johnson says he sees similar economic activity along the Ohio River.

He said there have been few problems in wells that have been drilled so far in the Buckeye State.

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