A recent report from the Post Carbon Institute, “Drilling Deeper: A Reality Check on U.S. Government Forecasts for a Lasting Tight Oil and Shale Gas Boom,” has grave warnings about the Energy Information Administration’s figures nationwide, concluding that two-fifths of the shale gas the agency expects to be produced between now and 2040 will likely never materialize. While many high-profile shale gas plays have already peaked in terms of gas production per well, the Marcellus appears to be an outlier in terms of productivity, researcher David Hughes concludes.
Enormous amounts of shale gas are being produced in Pennsylvania. In the first six months of this year, drillers here pumped 2 trillion cubic feet of gas. And much of this gas came from the Marcellus shale’s twin sweet spots, in the Northeast and Southwest corners of the state.
In the whirlwind of activity, some locals in here struck it rich – those who owned large tracts of land and negotiated their deals at exactly the right moment. Driving through the county, it seems like every back road has a red-and-white permit sign marking a shale gas well, a water impoundment, or other Marcellus-related infrastructure.
New drilling sites are a common sight in northeast Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale region. © 2014 Laura Evangelisto
Expectations ran high when the boom first began. In 2010, 60 Minutes introduced a new word to the national media – “shale-ionaires,” or landowners who made millions simply by leasing their land for drilling.
“Once a well is built and producing, royalty checks start popping up in the mailbox,” explained 60 Minutes anchor Leslye Stahl. “It can last years and add up to many more millions.”
But even in the most productive shale play in the country, these early hopes have often been dashed, with some landowners reporting that leasing has already wound up costing them money.
In Litchfield Township, Glenn Aikens, a member of the Bradford County Planning Commission, also has three shale gas wells on his land. Signing a lease brought a host of unexpected costs, Aikens says : $22,000 to set up an L.L.C. to make sure that his children could inherit the farm’s suddenly valuable acreage in spite of estate taxes, pre-drilling water testing for the farm’s seven wells (“He charged me $14,500 dollars, but I wouldn’t have had a leg to stand on had I not,” says Aikens. “If they ruin the water, what do I do with this farm?”), and perhaps most painfully, the permanent loss of a valuable tax credit for farmland, now that the leased land is considered commercial property instead. Land that was assessed at $500 an acre was now assessed at $2,500 – and taxes were due retroactively.