MORGANTOWN - The natural gas drilling boom sweeping the tri-state region is paying dividends for those earning graduate degrees in geology or geophysics from West Virginia University.
"I have kids who are going out and making as much as $120,000 a year, right off the bat," said Tim Carr, WVU's Marshall Miller professor of geology.
Noting the number of students earning advanced degrees has jumped significantly with the increased development of the Marcellus and Utica shale fields, Carr said those students have gone to work for companies such as Chesapeake Energy, Consol Energy, EQT Corp., and Petroleum Development Corp.
Photo by Casey Junkins
West Virginia University graduate geochemistry students, from left, Michon Mulder and Andrea Sack, work with an isotope ratio mass spectrometer to test water samples.
"And right now, our employment rate for those graduating from our program is 100 percent," Carr added.
As some WVU graduates take their talents to work in the gas and oil industry, the university also offers programs for those interested in studying how drilling and fracking may impact local water supplies. Iowa native Michon Mulder and New York native Andrea Sack are two of the students studying isotope geochemistry to determine how gas drilling and coal mining may affect drinking water wells.
"I came to WVU because I wanted to get into the environmental side of the energy industry," said Mulder, who noted she studies samples drawn from water wells in the north-central West Virginia.
Though she is still in the midst of her studies, Mulder said she believes that methane found in drinking water supplies could get there by any number of means. She does not dismiss the possibility it could come from gas drilling, but said there are many other possibilities.
"There are really multiple sources of methane - coal operations, landfills, and organics," Mulder added, noting those who depend on water wells near drilling operations should get their water tested before such drilling.
Sack said she enjoys WVU, adding that there are great opportunities for students enrolled in the geology field right now.
"I am studying coal mine drainage," she said, adding that most of her samples come from abandoned coal mines throughout the state.
Though Carr believes the overall future for the Marcellus and Utica shale drilling is bright, he said low natural gas prices may lead some companies to scale back their operations in the "dry" gas regions of Pennsylvania and West Virginia. According to the New York Mercantile Exchange, or NYMEX, natural gas prices hovered around $2.40 per 1,000 cubic feet last week, sharply lower than they were in previous years.
The methane-dominated dry gas is much more ready for market by companies such as Columbia Gas and Mountaineer Gas than the "wet" gas. This gas contains methane and substances such as ethane, propane, butane and propane, which are collectively known in the industry as natural gas liquids, or NGL. Carr said much of Marshall and Ohio counties contain the wet gas, as do counties in eastern Ohio.
"There should be a shift to there being more activity in the wet gas regions because of the value of the NGL," he said. "And the farther west you go, the better chance that you are going to be able to get oil, which is much more valuable at this point."
Carr pointed out that by comparison to the low natural gas price, the price for a barrel of oil on the NYMEX last week was over $100.
Ohio oil and gas industry leaders believe the state's share of the Utica Shale may contain up to 5.5 billion barrels of oil, in addition to a bounty of NGL. Carr said the Marcellus formation also contains some oil, but it is difficult to retrieve at this point.