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Wednesday, March 21,2012

Geology report: Athens Co. may see fracking fizzle

By Terry Smith
Photo Credits: Map courtesy ODNR.
Photo Caption: Attorney John Lavelle, in his letter Friday to landowners who signed his oil and gas leases blamed the lack of big investors in Cunningham Energy’s drilling plans on a new map that shows Athens County well outside the expected “core play area” for developing deep-shale resources in Ohio.

A new report from Ohio's top geologist appears to show that Athens County is outside the area that will get the greatest attention from companies wanting to exploit Ohio's Utica shale for oil and gas resources.

This could have major ramifications in Athens County, where the potential oil-and-gas boom (and the use of the controversial horizontal hydraulic fracturing process to obtain the resources) has been the top news story for the past year.

Hundreds of local property owners, with more than 100,000 acres of mineral rights, have agreed to lease those rights to energy companies for oil and gas development.

These landowners stand to make millions of dollars if signing bonuses are paid for the leases. If the wells are drilled and begin producing, then royalty checks based on gross production will follow for landowners.

In line with this blizzard of leasing activity, the potential oil-and-gas boom has become a major environmental issue in Athens County, with many residents strongly opposed to fracking. They've cited the experience of other communities where hydraulic fracturing has allegedly ruined water supplies and disrupted rural lifestyles with heavy traffic and industrial activity.

With all this interest, many local residents and officials have assumed that the oil and gas companies had good reason to feel confident in the resources underlying the county. It's been known that the carbon-rich Utica-Point Pleasant interval underlies the county, as it does much of east and central Ohio, and some experts predicted that oil would be the main target for drillers here.

It's always been a question, though, whether our underlying carbon resources are of sufficient quality (in thickness, age, pressure and/or organic composition), to have much value.

A report, "Geology and Activity Update of the Ohio Utica-Point Pleasant Play," prepared by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Geological Survey, includes several maps, based on historical core samplings or cuttings, that show Athens County well outside the "core productive area" for total organic carbon and other telling measurements of the source rock's potential to generate hydrocarbons.

In each case, according to maps in the ODNR Geological Survey report, core samplings or cuttings closest to Athens County show underwhelming grades on the four main measurements of source-rock potential for oil and gas development. The samplings were apparently taken by oil companies whose geo-physicists then analyzed them.

Larry Wickstrom, chief of the Geological Survey division and state geologist, co-authored the Utica update report and presented it to the annual meeting of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association this past week in Columbus.

The NEWS was unsuccessful in contacting Wickstrom on Wednesday about the report, though a local resident who attended the OOGA meeting said Wickstrom told the group that the areas delineated on the carbon resource maps – which don't include Athens County – are where the Utica-Point Pleasant play most likely will happen in Ohio.

An oil and gas expert at Marietta College, however, on Wednesday cautioned not to "abandon the ship" just yet on the oil and gas potential in our area. "My feeling all along is that the most southeastern part of Ohio is on the marginal end, at best, of the Utica-Point Pleasant shale play," said Robert Chase, chair and professor in Marietta College's Department of Petroleum Engineering and Geology. "However, until someone gets bold enough to drill something in the area, I don't think we can conclude there's nothing here."

He also pointed out that the maps in the state Geological Survey's presentation suggest the conclusions are based on spotty information for this part of southeast Ohio, with only one core sampling point in all of Athens and Washington counties. That sample, he said, has a total organic content of 1.9 percent, "which puts it in the good range, so there may be potential."

However, that data point is in central-eastern Washington County, and most of the maps show the oil and gas potential of the Utica shale petering out as it moves westward through Athens County.

Chase, though, suggested that the activity to the north may create such high demand that it could spill over into our area. “The closer they get to your area in terms of what gets leased up, the more likely the late arrivals to the dance will be stepping out into areas currently thought out of play,” he said.

Another source, who asked not to be identified, said that he's seen maps that potential oil and gas investors are being shown, and they suggest Athens County is well within the "window" for oil and gas development.

How the latest report will affect the millions of dollars of unpaid oil and gas leases in Athens County, as well as the over-arching environmental debate, is still uncertain.

However, it's probably safe to say that this ODRN geology update is good news to a lot of people in Athens County, and bad news to a lot of others.

The report can be found at

In the three main links under the page introduction, it's the third on the list.


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Let's see...we also know that there wasn't much interest in Athens county in the "flea market" down in Texas, and the big March 15 payout was (shock! surprise!) not made because, well, there were no deals made with drilling companies. Coincidence?