Just exactly how much gas is there in the Marcellus Shale?

Aug 26, 2011

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) now estimates that 40 times more gas is waiting to be recovered from the Marcellus Shale than it had thought.

The new number: 84 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. That replaces the previous estimate of a mere 2 trillion cubic feet.

The amount of gas believed to be in the Marcellus Shale is important because higher estimates of gas and monetary returns have made the shale play a bigger political football.

Bigger, but still smaller

The USGS's new, higher estimate highlights the rapid expansion of new drilling methods that allow companies to extract more gas from previously inaccessible underground shale formations.

"Since 2002 there have been major advances in the technology," says Jim Coleman, chief scientists for the USGS. "[These] have enabled the industry to prove that they can produce the gas and associated liquids from the Marcellus at both higher rates and apparently higher ultimate volumes."

The data is based on real-time production of gas from Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, and West Virginia wells.

Still, the estimate is much lower than the Department of Energy's current (and competing) estimate of 410 trillion cubic feet.

So how did it get such a radically different number - especially when DOE is actually a customer for the research generated by USGS (part of the Department of the Interior)? 

According to a spokesman for the DOE, the agencies have to sit down and sort that out, though it's likely that the DOE will wind up slashing its estimate.

"At the end of the day we were pretty comfortable with that 84 number," says the USGS' Coleman.  "We beat on it from a number of different ways to see if it should be higher or lower."

In New York State, John Holko, secretary of the Independent Oil and Gas Association says the study will send a good sign to the market.

"Now since the government steps in and says we see this resource as being there, being real, being long-term. Now the long-term users of the energy source - the natural gas itself - will say, 'ok, it’s not as much a risk for me to build a plant and plan on burning natural gas for the next 20 years'."