Most gas wells in county on national forest land
While Pocahontas County residents are debating the issue of future gas drilling, more than 50 wells already exist in the northernmost region of the county.
According to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), 54 gas wells have been drilled here and 30 are active wells.ﾠ Twenty-four of the wells are inactive, either plugged or abandoned.ﾠ Of the 30 active wells, 14 are gas storage wells in what is called the Glady storage field.ﾠ All but one of the active gas wells in the county are on Forest Service land.
Linda Tracy, geologist with the Monongahela National Forest, discussed the gas wells in the county.
"The wells that exist in Pocahontas County go back to the late 70s - early 80s when there was interest in the Oriskany and Huntersville chert formations for gas.ﾠ Some of them go back even to the late 50s in the Glady gas storage field," she said.
The Glady gas storage field is made up of wells that were drilled in the Oriskany and Huntersville chert for gas, but did not produce much gas and were converted to storage wells, according to Tracy.ﾠ
Tracy explained that gas is piped from other areas of the country and pumped back underground into these wells, closer to the markets in the northeast where it will be sold.
Recent activity by land and energy companies to purchase mineral rights in the area has raised concern that a new wave of gas drilling in the area is imminent.ﾠ
There has been much interest in the Marcellus shale, a thick layer of gas-producing shale, which is being drilled in Upshur County and other areas, using new drilling technology.ﾠ In Pocahontas County, the Marcellus shale lies above the Oriskany and Huntersville chert formations.ﾠ
Gas drillers would not have to drill deeper wells to reach the Marcellus shale but would probably employ horizontal drilling techniques, as they have done in Upshur County, to reach and release more natural gas from the Marcellus shale.ﾠ
After drilling vertically to reach the desired strata, gas drillers can now turn a motorized drill to follow a rock layer more or less horizontally.ﾠ A thick, flat layer of rock is ideal for horizontal drilling because the drillers can keep the drill in the correct strata.ﾠ
A worrisome issue with horizontal drilling is the amount of water used, both for drilling and hydrofracking.
Hydrofracking is the treatment of the well with pressurized water and other chemicals, to create fissures in the rock and increase the volume of gas produced by the well.ﾠ Tracy explained that a weak acid solution is often used in hydrofracking.
Hydrofracking was used to treat many of the vertical wells drilled into the Oriskany-Huntersville chert in the county.ﾠ The amount of water used to drill and hydrofrack vertical wells is "on the order of 100,000 gallons," according to Tracy.
But a much higher volume of water, potentially millions of gallons, is needed to drill and hydrofrack a horizontal well, due to the longer reach of pipe into the rock strata, she explained.ﾠ
"I understand that a well drilled in Upshur County recently used 550,000 gallons," said Tracy.
An outcrop of Marcellus shale occurs in the eastern part of the county, running generally northeast to southwest.ﾠ The shale layer quickly dives underneath the surface to the west and north.ﾠ At Marlinton, the Marcellus shale is more than a mile under the surface.ﾠ According to a graph on the DEP website, the layer of Marcellus shale under Pocahontas County is about 60 to 80 feet thick.ﾠ
In Upshur County, the Marcellus shale can be more than 100 feet thick.ﾠ
Tracy says that the rock strata in Pocahontas County may be less than ideal for horizontal drilling techniques, due to the highly folded nature of the strata, especially east of the Greenbrier River.ﾠ
"There are geologic differences between Pocahontas County and the successful well locations in Upshur County.ﾠ The rocks are much more intensely folded and faulted in Pocahontas County," she said.ﾠ "That makes the horizontal drilling technique very difficult if the formation is actually folded."ﾠ
In addition to the problem of folded strata, gas operators also face additional challenges if they want to drill on national forest lands.ﾠ
The government owns 62% of the mineral rights under the Monongahela National Forest.ﾠ If a company wants to drill a new gas well in these areas, it is required to file an Application for Permit to Drill, which includes a Surface Use Plan of Operations, or SUPO.ﾠ
The public has the opportunity to participate in this process through a public notice, comment and appeal period, required during the Forest Service review of the SUPO.ﾠ
Thirty-eight percent of the mineral rights in the Monongahela National Forest are privately owned.ﾠ On these lands, the DEP becomes the lead agency for drilling approval.ﾠ
In this situation, the Forest Service sits in the same position as a private landowner who has sold their mineral rights and state law controls how the minerals are developed.
"We have to look to the DEP to help us to get the operator to do something that would reduce the impacts to public land.ﾠ We do that as a landowner through the process that DEP has for deep wells," said Tracy.ﾠ
"The landowners are given official notice that there is a going to be a well drilled on their land and they have 15 days to submit a voluntary statement of no objection, or to provide some convincing argument to the DEP that what is proposed in the application will result in damage to public land," she added.
The DEP and the West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey maintain a list of all gas wells in the county and new permit applications on their websites.ﾠ The Monongahela National Forest would post a notice on their website under schedule of proposed actions if a company filed an APD/SUPO for approval.ﾠ
Tracy said it was uncertain if commercially profitable deposits of Marcellus shale lying under Pocahontas County.
"This is all speculation at this point.ﾠ Has anyone drilled a successful well in the Marcellus in Pocahontas County?ﾠ No.ﾠ So it's still speculation," she said.ﾠ
"Until somebody tries, it's hard to say," she added.