A shale formation that runs through portions of West Virginia and neighboring Appalachian states has more recoverable natural gas reserves than initially estimated, a new study released on Tuesday has found.
Release of the findings comes one day after industry officials announced that natural gas has surpassed coal as the nation’s top source of electricity, a development made possible by years of investment in gas extraction and the passage of costly federal regulations that require coal-fired power plants to reduce their planet-warming carbon emissions.
The two-year study, led by West Virginia University, found evidence that the Utica Shale, which spans from New York to Kentucky and includes portions of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, is much larger than predicted, holding recoverable resources that could rival those found in the Marcellus Shale, the largest shale oil and gas reserve in the country and second largest in the world.
Study findings, compiled by the Appalachian Oil and Natural Gas Research Consortium, an offshoot of the National Research Center for Coal and Energy in Morgantown, estimate that the Utica Shale holds 782 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and nearly 2 billion barrels of oil, reserves one researcher said will likely push forward the “shale revolution.”
“As far as West Virginia is concerned, natural gas can legitimately become a second player in the state,” said Appalachian Oil and Gas Research Consortium Director Doug Patchen.
Currently, coal dominates West Virginia’s energy sector, accounting for more than 90 percent of the state’s electricity production. According to U.S. Energy Information Administration data, West Virginia produces 5,776 gigawatt hours of coal-fired electricity, compared to just 36 for natural gas.
Patchen went on to say that oil and gas companies in the region will have to determine whether it is financially feasible to drill into the formation, which lies 4,000 to 12,000 feet below West Virginia’s Marcellus Shale play, something he said could be done in conjunction with current drilling into higher strata of rock.
“Ultimately, all our information shows the potential of the Utica play,” he said.
Extracting resources from such formations requires hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” a controversial practice that involves injecting pressurized fluid into the earth to break up rocks so gas and oil can be more easily extracted. Despite economic benefits, environmental protection groups say fracking is too risky as it often contaminates ground and surface water and can result in unpredictable seismic activity.
The practice has helped make the United States the world’s largest producer of natural gas. It also has dramatically reduced the price of natural gas, which has prompted power companies to re-fire closed plants with gas or co-fire existing coal-fired plants.
The trend has boosted the natural gas industry nationwide. According to data from the U.S. Energy Department, about 31 percent of electricity in America is now generated by natural gas, while 30 percent comes from coal. Those numbers are drastically different in West Virginia, the country’s second largest producer of coal.
As looming regulations on coal-fired power plants are expected to hit states like West Virginia, many are pushing for a switch to natural gas, which produces far less greenhouse gas emissions than coal.
Those regulations, under the Obama administration’s proposed Clean Power Plan, will require states to cut carbon emissions 30 percent by 2030. The rule, if approved later this summer, will be the first national emissions limit on coal-fired power plants. While part of President Barack Obama’s plan to address global warming, the plan has been termed “far-reaching” and “anti-coal” by opponents.
State officials in West Virginia, including its entire congressional delegation, oppose the plan, saying its sanctions are impossible to comply with. They also have said the plan would shutter coal production and spike utility costs.
Another West Virginia University study recently found that West Virginia could reasonably meet the Clean Power Plan guidelines if power companies were able to use alternative energy sources and find ways for existing power plants to use natural gas, something vehemently opposed by industry leaders in the state.