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Shale researchers still optomistic on gas reserves

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By Tim Puko
Wednesday, June 27, 2012, 6:24 p.m.

(This story was first published in March 2012)

STATE COLLEGE — The Marcellus shale's bounty of natural gas is likely close to some of the most optimistic early projections, according to the private sector and university researchers who have been butting heads with federal analysts over the size.

The mile-deep rock layer probably has about 500 trillion cubic feet of commercially recoverable gas, say new, separate reports from consultant groups ICF International and IHS Inc., reports that were the subject of a research conference on Monday at Penn State University. The amount of gas in the Marcellus has been in dispute for several years, and accurate data are crucial for long-term policy decisions being made in Harrisburg and Washington, experts said.

"When you see conflicting or at least apparently conflicting information out there, it has implications," said Patrick Henderson, Gov. Tom Corbett's top energy adviser. "It can send a signal for people who want to do business in Pennsylvania that maybe it's not as promising as what was thought."

Henderson said he is concerned about recent federal calculations that have been much lower. Analysts at the Department of Energy in January cut their reserve estimates by more than half — down to 141 trillion cubic feet — which could hurt Pennsylvania, said Henderson, one of four state officials who attended the conference.

Confusion has surrounded the numbers and other estimates from the federal government since the U.S. Geological Survey in August estimated only 84 trillion cubic feet of gas resources. Federal energy analysts did not accept an invitation to the conference, frustrating participants.

Industry critics have accused drilling companies and their allies in the research community of trumping up projections to inflate stock prices and for personal gain.

Federal geologists explained their methodology by phone, saying they were only assessing resources yet to be discovered and not anything currently being tapped. Scientist and project chief Christopher Schenk declined to explain other major differences between estimates from the survey and the private sector, saying his team's assessment stood on its own.

"When we put that out, it's not in any context of anything," Schenk said. "You have to know the methodology used, who funded it and why that assessment was put out. We do not say other assessments are wrong. We say they've been done for other purposes."

Several conference participants, including petroleum engineers, geologists and government officials, criticized federal agencies for not doing more to clear up confusion about the numbers. The conference organizer, Penn State geosciences professor Terry Engelder, conceived the summit, which had about 20 participants, as a way to resolve differences between estimates from federal researchers and academic and private researchers.

Engelder in 2009 projected the Marcellus could produce 489 trillion cubic feet of gas. His paper was not peer-reviewed, but other researchers, working with data from well production and test data from other shale plays, have reaffirmed his estimates, he said.

ICF, an industry consultant based in suburban Washington, estimated a range of 460 to 698 trillion cubic feet of gas, according to a presentation from company vice president Harry Vidas. ICF used maps from five major gas producers, analyzed historical data and modeled well potential.

IHS consultants from Houston and suburban Denver, participating by phone, said they completed their Marcellus update just this weekend. In 2009, they estimated 399 trillion cubic feet. Their new estimate ranges from 267 to 534 trillion cubic feet, depending on gas prices and the density of wells across the gas field. The gas sweet spot in the Pittsburgh area may produce up to three times the amount per well as other parts of the Marcellus, according to IHS.

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