Marcellus drilling boom takes breather in Centre County

lfalce@centredaily.comFebruary 9, 2014 

The Marcellus Shale, the vast geological mass that runs through the Appalachian region, is rich in natural gas, making it a ripe target for energy companies.

New technology has made previously inaccessible fuel possible to obtain, and Centre County is not being left out, with 63 wells in the Marcellus formation in addition to about a thousand more traditional gas wells.

With this still-new, and often controversial, boom, government bodies are staying involved from the outset. The Centre County Board of Commissioners gave responsibility for overseeing the work to the planning department, which created the Centre County Natural Gas Task Force. The 13-member committee looks at public concerns and private sector impacts and opportunities. Subcommittees address items such as economics, environment and public policy.

The groups are drawing on the diversity of the county to study the issues. State College and Bellefonte voices are being blended with outlying areas that may be more likely to face actual impacts, pro and con, from drilling.

Stan LaFuria, executive director of the Moshannon Valley Economic Development Partnership, said he’s been pleased with the efforts of county leaders to stay on top of development.

“(Residents can find out) anything they need to know about natural gas developments within their counties because of the positive actions of the county governments,” he said.

Companies such as CalFrac, an Alberta, Canada-based energy company, have come to the area looking to extract the gas trapped under 8,000 feet or so of rock. Seven operations companies are active in Centre County, with many additional support service companies as well. Some arrived several years ago, but a lack of new blood in the county doesn’t mean that there is nothing happening.

“It appears the mad rush to get the wells in the ground is over for now, but there is still significant natural gas activity in the area,” LaFuria said.

The MVEDP helped CalFrac come into the Philipsburg area, one of two Pennsylvania locations it is developing. The company’s Moshannon Valley site employs 100 people.

“They buy fuel, pay taxes, have a significant payroll with living-wage jobs, and pay for many other costs such as vehicle maintenance, motel rooms, food,” said LaFuria. “This is an example of the impact of natural gas developments in the area, a ripple effect in the economy.”

Sue Hannegan, of Centre County planning, sees that ripple in other areas, too. A variety of businesses, from furniture manufacturing to portable sanitation providers, are seeing bumps in business due to the drilling companies.

“They are retooling to fit demand,” she said.

And the demand does not look to be slacking anytime soon.

While Hannegan concedes that new drilling is “flat” compared to the influx before — with no new wells sunk since April 2012 — there are four permits for new wells that are in development, as well as a proposal for a pipeline that would connect well pads from Range Resources and Enerplus in the Snow Shoe area.

Those would then connect to one of the three larger transmission lines that goes through the county to bring natural gas to market.

One major economic impact Hannegan sees for Centre County is an expansion in the availability of natural gas for local use.

More gas means not only more residential and commercial use, but also an increase in compressed natural gas for vehicle use.

Centre County has been pursuing grants for approximately 30 CNG vehicles. Those will operate at significantly less cost, Hannegan said, showing a savings for the county and the taxpayers.

More CNG vehicles in use will also mean more fueling stations for them, and a potential for more and more CNG vehicles on the road.

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