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A West Virginia Jed Clampett

In 1890 my great grandfather farmed 120 acres along the Ohio River, in Tyler County, West Virginia near a town called Sisterville. He once told my dad that he was 44 years old before he had ever seen $100 in one place. However, 1890 was also the start of the great West Virginia oil boom. The petroleum industry was just beginning and the demand for kerosene, fuel oil, lubricants, and later, gasoline, was outstripping supply.
Oil derricks were everywhere. They were scattered on farms and in town they were in backyards and on vacant lots. There were even reports of people tearing down their houses to make room for more oil derricks.

In less than a year my great granddad went from having never seen $100 to making $500 a week. He got rich and as is often the dream of most West Virginia farmers, the first thing he did was buy a farm on flat land. However, the boom didn’t last all that long. The drilling technology at the time, once the oil began to run out, couldn’t go much deeper and oil production shifted to new fields in Texas and California. My great grandfather invested his fortune and lived well for many years.
Unfortunately though, as he got older, he put more and more of his money into the stock market. You can see this coming, can’t you? When the Great Crash came in 1929 he lost it all. He had to sell his assets, including his West Virginia property, to pay his creditors. But he was able to keep the mineral rights. He felt sure they would be worth something someday.

One hundred and twenty three years later, thanks to my great aunt, who, after my great granddad died, paid the taxes, the mineral rights are still in the family and in this second decade of the 21st century they’ve suddenly become a valuable asset. I can’t deny that it makes me feel a little like Jed Clampett. However, unlike Jed on TV’s Beverly Hillbillies, it’s not the oil that’s making this property so prized, but rather, it’s the natural gas. My great-granddad’s old property is on a massive geological formation called the Marcellus Shale. This layer of shale runs from New York, through Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia and into Kentucky. What makes this unique is that the shale has massive quantities of natural gas that’s trapped in fractures and small pockets in the rock.

The presence of natural gas in shale formations, and there are many such shale deposits throughout the United States and Canada, has been known for years. But early efforts to drill for gas didn’t yield much success. The wells would pump a little natural gas and then peter out. However, the Department of Energy kept up its research and began experimenting with technologies that would break up the shale and release the natural gas. Using a water and gel mix combined with deep horizontal drilling to break up the formations, it worked. Already, in the Marcellus Shale, there are 3,400 new gas wells. But the number could grow far larger. The Barnett shale formation in Texas has over thirteen thousand producing gas wells.
But, natural gas isn’t the only fossil fuel that can be recovered from shale. Maybe the biggest news is that several of these formations are rich in oil. Canada is already producing large quantities of shale oil and so is North Dakota. According to some studies the United States could, by continuing to take advantage of these technologies, shift from being an importer of overseas fossil fuels to being an exporter in just a few years.

My enthusiasm for this technology, since my great granddad made sure I would have a stake in it, is understandable. But, the recovery of shale based natural gas and oil is not a passive technology. It involves pumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of the fracture mixture deep into the shale formation. The mixture is predominantly water but also includes various chemicals to give it additional viscosity. While it releases the fossil fuels from the rock, allowing them to flow from within the shale to the surface, the problem can come in the effect all that water, and the associated chemicals, will have on local water tables. Since the mixture is pumped out after it has done its job there is also the challenge of what to do with the water when the process is complete. Environmentalists and local property owners are justifiably concerned and adequately addressing these issues is imperative if there is to be a future of this kind of recovery technology.

Most of us, quite reasonably, thought we had seen the last of the days when America was the world’s largest producer of oil. We had gotten used to being dependent on overseas supplies. But, thanks to shale, it’s likely that once again, the United States will not only be energy independent, but also a major exporter of petroleum products. Estimating the impact this will have on our economy and on our foreign policy is almost too much of a change to grasp.

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