11:00am

Tue October 11, 2011
Energy

'Utica Shale' could push gas drilling further north

Since Chesapeake Energy announced last month that it saw great promise in test wells in Ohio, the public has become newly acquainted with the Utica Shale, the Marcellus Shale's northern sibling.

Monday the Syracuse Post-Standard reported that Norse Energy, which has substantial lease holdings in central New York, has applied for the first permit for a Utica Shale well.

The well, in Chenango County half an hour's drive from Syracuse, is on hold pending the state's regulatory review.

The new target

Joe Heath's reaction  to the sudden interest in the Utica Shale is tantamount to an 'I told you so'.

Heath, a Syracuse-based environmental lawyer, has handled hundreds of gas drilling documents. He recently saw the first document from a gas company (a force majeure letter extending a gas lease) that expressly mentioned not the now infamous Marcellus Shale, but the deeper Utica formation.

To get gas from Utica wells, drillers would have to employ hydrofracking, a high-pressure extraction process that has been at the heart of the drilling controversy in New York State over the Marcellus Shale.

"Utica's the new target now," says Heath. "The reason they've been signing leases here is to target the Utica Shale."

Drilling further north?

The Utica Shale sits below the Marcellus. In New York State, the portion of the shale at the right depth to hold gas runs further upstate than the Marcellus Shale.

Heath says that's the reason gas companies have sought leases for land as far north as the land belonging to his client, the Onondaga Nation, located just south of Syracuse.

But John Holko, secretary of New York's Independent Oil and Gas Association, says companies may be more cautious about pursuing the Utica Shale in New York than they are in Ohio.

"Utica has become a prominent development target in Ohio because of the liquids being produced in conjunction with the natural gas," he says. In New York, companies expect to only find natural gas, which sells for much less.

That doesn't offer much comfort to Jeanne Shenandoah, one of the leaders of the Onondaga, who are known for environmental activism. She says the Nation didn't return the gas companies' calls and letters to sign a lease. But she knows property around the Onondaga's land has been leased for Marcellus or Utica drilling, and it worries her. 

"What's the difference?" she asks. "I mean they're both extremely dangerous, hazardous to our health and everyone around it."