Westmoreland County described as not in natural gas 'sweet spot'

| Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

There's good and bad news for Westmoreland County in the Marcellus shale “gas rush,” officials said Wednesday at a forum on natural gas development.

“Westmoreland is in the play (the area that contains the gas), but it's not in the sweet spot,” said former state Sen. Bill Stewart, director of the Keystone Energy Forum in Johnstown, which presented the forum in conjunction with the Westmoreland Chamber of Commerce.

Still, more than 400 permitted wells have been drilled in the county from Derry to Sewickley Township, he said. Derry leads the county with 84 wells, 39 of which are producing. Unity is on the other end with two wells, neither of which is producing.

Westmoreland County provided 32 billion cubic feet of the 1.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas produced in state between January and June, said Stephanie Catarino Wissman, executive director of the Associated Petroleum Industries of Pennsylvania, a Harrisburg-based trade group.

But the gas in the Westmoreland shale is not optimal, said Kenneth J. Freeman, manager of engineering at Abarta Energy of Pittsburgh.

“The gas is dry in Westmoreland,” he said. “Not quite as deep.”

What is known as “dry” gas contains methane but little else. In addition to methane, “wet” gas contains butane and ethane. These liquid natural gases, or LNGs, can be separated and sold on their own.

Westmoreland's opportunities from shale lie in ancillary businesses, workforce development, serving as a hub for goods and services, and looking beyond oil and gas for manufacturing projects, Freeman said.

Westmoreland County Community College has been training people for jobs as roustabouts and other positions in the oil and gas industry for three years.

“It's been very successful,” WCCC trustee Gene Ciafre said. The college will open its Advanced Technology Center at the former Sony plant in East Huntingdon in the fall of 2014, offering an array of workforce development programs for jobs that did not exist 10 years ago, including welding, electronics, metallurgy and mechatronics.

Almost 1,000 workers have been certified for entry-level positions in the natural gas industry during those three years, said Pat Gerity, vice president for continuing education, workforce and community development at WCCC. Courses include training for roustabouts, floor hands and welder's helpers, as well as classes needed to get a commercial driver's license with natural gas emphasis.

A college in North Dakota, the location of another large shale deposit, has studied the WCCC program, Gerity said.

The Westmoreland forum coincided with the introduction of a bill calling for a moratorium on the natural gas drilling method of hydraulic fracturing known as fracking. Introduced by state Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, the bill would halt fracking while an appointed study commission analyzes the agricultural, economic, environmental and social impacts of oil and gas drilling in the state.

The Keystone Energy Forum supports developing the Marcellus shale natural gas reserves in the state through policies to promote a strong economy and energy security.

The Westmoreland Chamber of Commerce represents about 1,000 businesses across the county.

Both groups recognized the volatility of the drilling issue.

“On the one hand you have folks that think the gas industry is a gift from heaven; on the other are those who think it will be the end of civilization,” chamber President Chad Amond said.

Marigrace Butela of Dunbar Township, Fayette County, said she attended the forum because she has concerns about drilling.

“I know several families affected,” Butela said. “They can say drilling doesn't contaminate (the water), but every one of them had to get water buffaloes.”

The opportunities for Pennsylvania and the nation from shale are enormous, Freeman said. The Appalachia Basin alone could produce energy independence for America, he said.

“We are living in a carbon-based universe,” Freeman said. “Shale is here to stay.”

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or csmith@tribweb.com.

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