Sunday, December 13, 2009

Rock Around the Clairton Clock

Marcellus Shale

Could Marcellus Shale be Clairton’s savior? Clairton, PA is located on the Monongahela River several miles south of Pittsburgh. The city was incorporated in 1903 and in the early 20th century boasted an amusement park, dance pavilion, and popular beach, all frequented by the upper crust of the Pittsburgh social scene. As the steel industry began to populate the area Clairton carved out its niche by housing the major coke producing plant in the world. Coke is the product that links coal to steel and thus is a crucial component in steel production. Clairton boomed. The local high school was one of the few in the area that sported a swimming pool. Residents’ taxes were low because the steel mill paid the bulk of the taxes. Services were first class – fire and police had state-of-the-art equipment and the city’s own street department kept the roads clear on snowy days and nghts so workers could get into and out of the steel mills. Times were good from the end of World War II into the late 1970s and early 80s.

A one-horse town: For all its good living – affordable housing, one of the most beautiful parks in the area, steady work; it was a one-industry town. The ancillary businesses were directly or indirectly supported by the steel industry, so when the steel industry began to rust, families moved away. The exodus was not like the influx. As entire families had moved into Clairton during boom years, families moved out in pieces. Many products of the highly rated Clairton high school went off to college or to the military service and found jobs elsewhere, leaving middle aged parents and elderly grandparents behind. Property values tumbled and people looking for work moved in but were too often unsuccessful in their quest. As time passed two main segments remained in the poverty-stricken town; the elderly who owned their homes, could not sell them, and lived on meager pensions and Social Security, and young people who moved into low rent housing but had little if any income. Like so many other one-industry towns, Clairton sank into the depression of poverty as evidenced by empty storefronts, limited public services, and a rising crime rate.

Enter Marcellus Shale: This writer knew little of Marcellus Shale prior to several informative correspondences form an ex-patriot Clairtonian who now resides in what used to be referred to as “dahntahn.” (That’s Pittsburgh for those of you uneducated in colloquial Clairton English). Devonian black shale is a rock called the Marcellus. It is black in color and easy for geologists to spot in the field and its slightly radioactive signature makes it easily recognizable. Marcellus Shale found beneath the earth’s surface, is organically rich and contains a large amount of natural gas, mostly propane and butane.

As recently as 2002 the United States Geological Survey in its Assessment of Undiscovered Oil and Gas Resources of the Appalachian Basin Province, calculated that the Marcellus Shale contained an estimated undiscovered resource of about 1.9 trillion cubic feet of gas. That's a lot of gas but it is spread over an enormous geographic area that extends from Tennessee to New York, with the majority of the range in Western PA, Eastern Ohio, Southwestern New York, and most of West Virginia.

How does the gas hide in that rock? Natural gas occurs within the Marcellus Shale in three ways: 1) within the pore spaces of the shale; 2) within vertical fractures (joints) that break through the shale; and, 3) adsorbed on mineral grains and organic material. Most of the recoverable gas is contained in the pore spaces. However, the gas has difficulty escaping through the pore spaces because they are very tiny and poorly connected.

Drilling began in Washington County, an hour south of Clairton in 2003 in an effort to determine the quality and quantity of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale Range. Until recently it was not considered cost effective to remove the gas from the rock. However new methods of drilling techniques have been developed that show much promise.

What does this mean for Clairton? A Fredonia State College professor calculated that there might be as much as 500 trillion cubic feet of gas within the Marcellus Shale Range. The huge amount of recoverable natural gas will likely start another boom. Just as the steel mills created cities in the Monongahela Valley, so might this new industry revive struggling municipalities. Lower transportation costs to heavily populated Eastern Seaboard states as well as to the Midwest will make the price even more attractive. It is also possible that land in Clairton as well as surrounding communities will be leased for drilling with long term royalties going to landowners. Since 2007 many local landowners have been approached by companies to lease their land for drilling.

What about the downside? As in any other venture that takes something from the earth there are environmental potential downsides. Marcellus Shale is, quite literally, a tough nut to crack. It has to be fractured successfully in order to get economic quantities of gas to flow. These "frac" techniques have advanced to the point at which many fractures can be made along the length of the well in a single pass. Marcellus Shale also tends to extend laterally, so that's the shape a wellbore needs to take in order to hit the most pay. High pressure water is used in the horizontal drilling required to tap the resource. There are some concerns that the residue could get into the water table and cause an environmental hazard. This is still speculation, but it is one issue that needs to be addressed. With the air over Clairton and Glassport already ranking as in the top four of most polluted cities in America, there might be some reluctance to move forward with another procedure that could potentially cause harm.

Thanks to Tom and others who have forwarded information for this blog.

A little blogging music Maestro… Any good Rock nad Roll song. How about “19th Nervous Breakdown,” by the Rolling Stones..

Dr. Forgot

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