The Marcellus “Line of Death” in NE PA

Terry Engelder, Penn State geosciences professor and “father of the Marcellus Shale” once coined the term “line of death” for the point where shale stops being productive. He was specifically talking about the coal region in Pennsylvania where once-upon-many-millennia-ago high temperatures that hardened the anthracite coal also “cooked out” methane natural gas from the shale. Geologists and gas companies know the area around the Lackawanna Syncline—a banana-shaped formation that runs through Luzerne and Lackawanna counties—is likely to be devoid of methane, but what they don’t how is how far from the Syncline the line of death will be found.

We now have another plugged well that helps indicate where shale is unproductive—this one in Sugarloaf Township in neighboring Columbia County:

For the past few weeks, contractors have swarmed the natural gas well site next to the Bear Fuel service station on state Route 118 in Columbia County.

This time, they were filling instead of drilling.

Bear Fuel employee John Leshko was close enough that he could watch the contractors pulling up the pipes and well casing. On Wednesday, they covered the area where a drilling rig once stood with sheets of metal.

Heather Lamparter, general counsel for EXCO Resources LLC, which was exploring the area near Bear Fuel, said the company is plugging and abandoning the well.

"It was not a good well," she said. She declined to elaborate.*

Where else have wells been drilled but proved to be unproductive?

  • A few miles away from the EXCO well near Bear Fuel service, WPX Energy had a well pad on state Route 487 near St. Gabriel Hill Road. Although they continue to monitor it, all of the equipment to support drilling is gone.
  • About five miles from the EXCO and WPX wells, Encana Oil & Gas drilled the Buda site behind the Ricketts Glen Hotel on Route 118 in Fairmount Twp. in Luzerne County in 2010. It was unproductive and plugged.
  • Encana also drilled a second well nearby in Lake Township—also unproductive and plugged.
  • EXCO drilled the Skyline well in Greenfield Township and the Lopatofsky well in Clifford Township, both in along the southern border of Susquehanna County. They were unproductive and plugged.
  • Carrizo Marcellus drilled a well at a site along state Route 29 in Monroe Township, near Noxen. That well was unproductive and plugged.

Are there any productive zones around the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre areas (Lackawanna and Luzerne counties)?

"Right now, I would be surprised if anything in Luzerne County were to come up productive," said Kenneth Klemow, director of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research for Northeastern Pennsylvania at Wilkes University.

Researchers at the institute have been trying to track the "line of death" on their own. They compiled a map that shows all permits issued and wells drilled in Pennsylvania, categorized by whether they are active or expired, producing or not.

The institute has defined a 15-mile radius around the coal region that seems to encompass all the expired permits and correlate with the abandoned wells.

"There’s no reason why a 15-mile radius should be a magic number," Mr. Klemow said. "Right now, this is our best guess as to what might be the exclusion zone."*

*The Scranton Times Tribune (Apr 29, 2012) – Trying to find the gas drilling ‘line of death’