Amid cheap gas, Pa. drillers carry on

State is not seeing the same reduction in Marcellus Shale drilling as other areas.

By Rory
Staff Writer

SCRANTON – The price of natural gas has dropped nearly to levels that make drilling in the Marcellus Shale unprofitable, according to a Penn State educator, but drillers have been hedging their prices and the Northeast is still the best-paying gas market.

Freefalling from a high in 2008 of around $14 per thousand cubic feet, prices are currently around $4 per thousand cubic feet, hovering just above the $3.75 threshold that companies believe makes Marcellus Shale drilling unprofitable, said Tom Murphy, an educator with the Lycoming County Penn State Cooperative Extension. He spoke on Tuesday at a public-education meeting sponsored by the Lackawanna Heritage Valley Authority at the Steamtown National Historic Site.

But many companies hedged their gas sales months ago at around $9 per thousand cubic feet, he said, and because much of the Northeast uses natural gas for home heating, Pennsylvania isn’t seeing the same reduction in drilling rigs as other shale drilling areas.

“The proximity of that (the Marcellus Shale) is what a lot of this is about,” Murphy said. “They are leasing right now, but they’re leasing for a lot less than they were before. … It’s not a matter of is this coming. It’s a matter of how big is this going to be.”

Companies are mostly leasing strategically to fill in holes in drilling units while slowing production to reduce supply and increase prices, he said. But the usual three-month to six-month falloff between reduced production and reduced supply isn’t occurring. “There’s so much gas coming out of these shales, and the Marcellus Shale is one of those, that the lag time is nine to 12 months,” Murphy said.

Still, the “weakest link” in the industry is dealing with contaminated wastewater, he said. While there are eight deep-injection wells in the state, only one is available for industry use, and it’s in the southwestern part of the state.

The vast majority of the water is being treated at municipal sewage facilities. There, the heavy metals are removed, and the brine is simply diluted and dumped into waterways in the Susquehanna River watershed.

“It’s actually starting to get to the point where it’s starting to exceed what can be put in” the watershed, Murphy said.

Another water issue is managing pollution at the drilling site, said Jim Garner, the Susquehanna Conservation District manager. “They talk about restoration; they like to do restoration,” he said, displaying a photograph of sediment fencing at a site that had been compromised by runoff. “In practice, it’s a different situation. … We’ve only seen several sites fully restored. It can be pretty challenging.”

As the drilling ramps up, hundreds of trucks will be driving over Susquehanna County’s many dirt roads, he said. The unstable roads combined with the county’s many waterways create 2,712 potential pollution sites, he said. “In a few weeks, it’s really going to be interesting to see how these roads don’t hold up,” he said.

Garner’s district has approved only one erosion and sedimentation plan and just two others have been submitted, he said. All the activity and unresolved concerns have created a swirl of public speculation, he said. “I’ve been with the district 15 years. I have never heard anything create rumors like this.”

Rory Sweeney, a Times Leader staff writer, may be reached at 970-7418.

Copyright: Times Leader