2 Professors Plus 1 Calculation = Gas Rush

The first well in the Marcellus shale was drilled in 2004. But the full scale gas rush in Pennsylvania started about three years ago. For this, you can credit the work of two geologists. In particular, it was one calculation they made that changed everything. Here's the Allegheny Front's Reid Frazier.

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HOST: The first well in the Marcellus shale was drilled in 2004. But the full scale gas rush in Pennsylvania started about three years ago. For this, you can credit the work of two geologists. In particular, it was one calculation they made that changed everything. Hereís the Allegheny Frontís Reid Frazier.

Frazier: Terry Engelder teaches at Penn State University. Gary Lash is a professor at SUNY-Fredonia in Western New York. The two men are experts in Devonian Shalesólayers of shales laid down millions of years before the first dinosaurs appeared. For years, the two men worked in relative obscurity. Gary Lash says noone paid much attention to these rocks.

LASH : It was shale. And for a long time even industry wasnít interested in it. Shale was often the thing you had to drill thru to get down to the sandstone, limestone reservoirs.

FRAZIER: Lashís colleague at Penn State Terry Engelder was one of the foremost experts on one particular layer of this rock: Marcellus Shale. In the 1990s, he and some graduate students looked at the Marcellus in a new way.

ENGELDER: These fractures were driven by high pressure gas in the rocks; this is the same gas that is the methane of the Marcellus.

FRAZIER: Everyone knew there was gas inside this rock. But could it be extracted? It could, through the fractures Engelder studied. This was proven in the 1990s, in Texas. There, new drilling methods, like hydraulic fracturing--AKA fracking--tapped deep underground gas reserves. In 2004, the energy firm Range Resources fracked its first well in Pennsylvania. Oil and gas investors started taking note. In 2007, Engelder got a phone call.

ENGELDER : A Wall Street analyst called me up and said would you like to talk to my clients about the Marcellus?

FRAZIER: It was an energy analyst with Jeffries, a securities and investment banking group.

LASH: It was a conference call and one person asked if he knew how much natural gas the Marcellus might hold.

ENGELDER: And I didnít know at that particular point in time. But thought that might be a really important question and so sat down, and did a back of the envelope calculation.

LASH: The number he came up with was quite high. And he wasnít sure about it. so he called me up and asked me to do a calculation.

ENGELDER: And, he did, and came to pretty much the same conclusion I did.

FRAZIER: Lash used two different methods to make two separate calculations to come up with a more accurate number. Keep in mind, the best estimate at the time was from the US Geological Surveyóthe authority for this kind of thing.

LASH: Theirs was 2.7 trillion cubic feet, and our estimate was in the range of 500 trillion cubic feet.

Frazier: If correct, this would be enough to provide the entire United States with natural gas for twen-ty years. This was a really big number.

LASH: We had this supergiant natural gas field in the northeast United States very close to the market and in a location where you already have a pretty robust pipeline infrastructure in place.

FRAZIER: Terry Engelder.

ENGELDER: The Marcellus was going to be far richer than anything in the literature at that point in time.

FRAZIER: Word of his estimate reached Engelderís bosses at Penn State. Then the university did what big universities tend to do in this situation: they put out a press release. And the press responded in kind. Reporters called, and wrote stories about Marcellus shale.

LASH: When that Penn State release came out, in January 2008, It changed our lives forever. Now all the sudden, the same day the Penn State release came out, UPI picked it up and it was off to the races.

FRAZIER: It wasnít just reporters who were interested. Oil and gas men came calling, too.

ENGELDER: A number of these people wishing to lease land called me and said, ìWhere should we go to lease land? What is the richest land? What is the sweet spot in the Marcellus?î

FRAZIER: He told them start in northeast Pennsylvania, and draw a curve through the state to down to the southwest corner.

ENGELDER: Bradford county, Lycoming, Clinton, Center, Indiana, Westmoreland, over to Greene and Washington and down into Marshall county in West Virginia. You try anywhere in there, youíre likely to find Marcellus in an economic quantity. It was that spectacular. That big.

FRAZIER : If drilling companies and investors had been worried about taking a risk in Pennsylvania, Lash and Engelder put those fears to rest. Gary Lash.

LASH: I think industry knew it had great potential. What we did was brought it to light.

FRAZIER: Drillers and land men flooded into the state, and the rush was on. In one year, lease prices shot up from FIFTY dollars an acre to EIGHT THOUSAND. Many Pennsylvanians made money by selling their gas rights. But not all the changes have been so welcome. Well blowouts, water pollution, and all that truck traffic are the downsides of the gas boom. Still, Engelder says they did the right thing for Pennsylvania--and for the country.

ENGELDER: This is an opportunity for America.

FRAZIER: Engelder says the Marcellus could help the country become energy independent. He sees our foreign policy as too focused on protecting access to foreign oil. So he views the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through the prism of British Thermal Units, or BTUs. A BTU of course, is a standard measurement of energy.

Frankly Iíd rather not have my grandchildren losing their lives in a place like Iraq or Afghanistan trying to protect BTUs when in fact those BTUs are present here in the U.S.

Frazier: Engelder says his contribution was to sell Americans on all those home-grown BTUs.

ENGELDER: I think thatís something I take a great deal of pride in and obviously wouldnít change that for the world.