Researchers say there's gas under Bucks and Montgomery Counties, but don't expect any large-scale drilling

Posted: July 09, 2012

Government researchers say there's recoverable natural gas beneath Bucks and Montgomery Counties, and a small Western Pennsylvania company is trying to find it.

But experts doubt there will be a drilling rush in the two counties, even if the new Pennsylvania budget had not slapped a moratorium on drilling there.

The two counties are already protected by a moratorium imposed by the Delaware River Basin Commission, the interstate agency that oversees water issues in the river basin. The moratorium will stay in place for the entire watershed until the commission has drilling regulations in place, something unlikely to happen any time soon.

In an assessment of "undiscovered" oil and gas resources, a U.S. Geological Survey report released in June estimated that 876 billion cubic feet of natural gas may be contained in a geologic formation called the South Newark Basin. Formed about 227 million years ago, the South Newark lies under portions of Bucks and Montgomery Counties as well as part of New Jersey. The Marcellus Shale formation holds 160 times more gas, according to the latest estimates from the U.S. Department of Energy.

The amount in the South Newark Basin is too little to be worth pursuing for now, said Dan Weaver, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association, an industry group. "Do we foresee within the industry any major movement in that direction? No," he said.

But, Weaver added, "that's not to say you're not going to get a small company saying, 'Hey, why don't we drill a test well?' "

Turm Oil may be one such company. In February, the company applied to drill a natural gas well in Nockamixon Township, Bucks County, and the state Department of Environmental Protection is evaluating the application.

The site has attracted interest for years.

In 1985, North Central Oil Co., based in Texas, drilled a 10,500-foot well that found some natural gas, but not in commercial quantities. The well was plugged.

But modern drilling techniques that have allowed the exploitation of the Marcellus Shale may also make the gas under Nockamixon recoverable.

The Turm permit application indicated the company plans to drill 7,500 feet into the Lockatong formation, a layer of shale within the South Newark Basin.

Company officials were unavailable to talk about the project Friday, a receptionist at the firm's office said.

"The only true way to know whether a hydrocarbon is present is to drill a well," said Weaver of the independent oil and gas association.

Another company, Arbor Resources, received permits to drill for natural gas on the same property in 2007 and 2009 but never followed through.

By 2009 the Delaware River Basin Commission declared its moratorium on drilling in the watershed, making Arbor's permit moot.

Nockamixon Township has fought the drilling.

The township's main protection is the Delaware River Basin Commission moratorium. As for the new two-county moratorium in the state budget, Township Solicitor Jordan Yeager said: "Any pause button that extends the time our residents and our resources are protected is a good thing."

Drilling has divided the bucolic community. Some residents were eager for income from leases; others feared their streams and drinking-water wells would be contaminated, their rural lifestyle ruined.

Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, an environmental organization that opposes drilling in the river basin, said, "I think these companies want to be at the starting block . . . hoping the moratorium is going to be lifted."

"From the viewpoint of a taxpayer, it seems ridiculous that DEP spends the resources to process these permits when they can't be used," Carluccio said.

The Delaware River Basin Commission shows no signs of lifting the drilling moratorium.

The joint state-federal panel proposed drilling regulations in December 2010 and appeared ready to vote on revised regulations the following November, after taking lengthy and voluminous public comment. But the meeting was abruptly canceled when Delaware Gov. Jack Markell said he would oppose the plan.

The commission is scheduled to meet Wednesday, but the drilling regulations are not on the agenda.

Pennsylvania officials and the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, have been pushing to get those regulations in place.

"DRBC maintains its misguided, hurry-up-and-wait position on safe American natural gas development, citing 'a number of reasons to wait a bit' instead of following other jurisdictions where development is occurring and commonsense environmental regulations have led to more jobs and clean-burning energy," said Kathryn Klaber, the coalition's president.


Contact Sandy Bauers

at 215-854-5147, sbauers@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @sbauers. Read her blog, "GreenSpace,"

at www.philly.com/greenspace.

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