Monday, February 18, 2008

Pennsylvania Natural Gas Found in the Coalbed Methane

While drilling for coalbed methane gas has drawn the spotlight, natural gas quietly has become the new prize of the region, with a half-dozen national companies chasing land and leases in Cambria and Somerset counties.

With new technologies such as horizontal drilling, along with new estimates that the 6,000-foot-deep Marcellus Shale is swollen with an untapped reservoir of natural gas, the region could see record-breaking production of both natural and methane gas.

But the similarities stop there.

While methane gas rights go along with underground coal rights, most of which were sold to now-defunct coal companies long ago, natural gas is a separate mineral right that must be newly negotiated with landowners.

Besides, some say, natural gas drillers do more courting.

“Yes, there is more natural gas in Pennsylvania they’re going after, but natural gas folks treat people differently, more nicely,” said state Rep. Tom Yewcic, D-Jackson Township.

The lawmaker, who recently saw his bill to protect landowners against abuses by methane gas drillers advance to the House floor, said he is not hearing of problems with natural gas drillers.

In fact, he said, the courting has begun.

Letters have gone out in this region from Michigan-based Western Land Services Inc., offering property owners oil and gas leases.

“We are very excited about the geology of this area and feel this is an excellent opportunity for land/mineral owners to get involved,” the letter says.

Western Land Services offers an initial payment, and if a producing well is drilled, royalty checks while it produces.

Competition for oil and gas leases in Somerset and Cambria counties is the most competitive it’s been in 20 years, say officials at the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Some companies seek to buy both methane and natural gas rights, but most are expressing interest in natural gas, hoping to tap into the deep Marcellus Shale gas pockets.

“Because the price of gas has gone up so steeply, it’s suddenly worth the effort to drill much deeper,” DEP spokeswoman Helen Humphries said.

Some companies do both methane and natural gas drilling, but they would not be doing it at the same time and in the same spot, she said.

There are 52 active permits for natural gas drilling in Cambria County, she said. There are none in Somerset, but companies that have negotiated for leases are expected to file for permits this year.

Even government agencies have been approached for gas leases or agreements, including the Johnstown-Cambria County Airport and the Windber Borough Council.

But experts advise landowners to be cautious about entering into any agreement and to consult with an attorney or other knowledgeable person before signing anything.

Landowners packed a forum Thursday night on the ins and outs of natural gas leasing, sponsored by the Cambria County Farm Bureau.

A geologist who acts as an agent between groups of landowners and gas companies talked about how to get the best possible deal.

Farm Bureau President Robert Davis said the message is that landowners are better off if they act together, rather than separately.

The average consumer price for natural gas in the United States is expected to have risen 78 percent between 2001 and the end of 2008, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.

Penn State researchers estimate that companies could retrieve 50 trillion cubic feet of gas if they tap into the Marcellus Shale in this region.

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