WHEELING - There may not be as much natural gas in the vast Marcellus Shale formation as government and industry leaders previously estimated, but officials do not believe this makes drilling less valuable.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration believes the total recoverable reserves in the Marcellus - which stretches from New York to Tennessee and includes virtually all of West Virginia, much of Pennsylvania and some of eastern Ohio - are 141 trillion cubic feet. This reflects a significant decrease from the 410 trillion cubic feet shown in prior estimates.
"Drilling in the Marcellus accelerated rapidly in 2010 and 2011, so that there is far more information available today than a year ago. Indeed, the daily rate of Marcellus production doubled during 2011 alone," according to the administration's report, "2012 Early Release Overview."
Officials with the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimate the vast Marcellus Shale formation now only contains 141 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, down from a prior estimate of 410 trillion cubic feet.
However, Corky DeMarco, executive director of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association, said these estimates may not account for the portion of the formation that consists of ethane, propane, butane and pentane.
"Most people are drilling in the 'wet' window because of the price," he said. "If you are just looking at how much methane is coming out of those holes, that is probably not giving you the whole picture."
In speaking of the natural gas price, the New York Mercantile Exchange, or NYMEX, shows that prices are hovering at $2 per 1,000 cubic feet. Because this is much lower than prices have been in recent years, DeMarco said drillers are working more in the wet gas portion of the Marcellus to get the ethane and other natural gas liquids - in addition to the natural gas.
Chesapeake Energy plans to shift much of its drilling operations away from the methane-dominated "dry" natural gas regions of Pennsylvania to focus more on retrieving the ethane and other liquids, as well as oil.
Although the report shows lower gas totals for the formation, Marcellus Shale Coalition spokesman Travis Windle said the report, "underscores the critical and growing role that American natural gas will continue to play in meeting our nation's growing energy needs for decades to come."
"While estimates ebb and flow over time, history of oil and natural gas production always trends upward thanks to new technologies and innovations that even the brightest experts today could never foresee," he said.
Matt Pitzarella, director of corporate communications and public affairs for Range Resources Corp., said, "There was confusion in the past as to what the EIA measured."
"The number is only looking at known technically recoverable reserves, not undiscovered reserves or gas in place," he said.
"The EIA is looking at one part of the puzzle. But there are two things everyone agrees on and that is no one knows for certain how much gas is in the Marcellus - and whatever the number is, it's a lot.
"Even if you assume the EIA's latest number is the absolute highest volume of gas in the Marcellus, it's still the second or third largest known gas field on the planet," Pitzarella said.