WHEELING - Seven years ago, a company known as Range Resources began purchasing natural gas mineral rights in Ohio County for, in some instances, $5 per acre.
Today, those same leases are going for up to $7,500 per acre throughout the Ohio Valley, with royalties up to 20 percent. More than 100 wells have been drilled and are producing throughout the region, with more drilled and awaiting production and hundreds of others permitted.
The Ohio Valley finds itself traveling a road filled with riches via the natural gas industry, as tens of billions of new money have come into the area in just the past few years. Last year alone, more than $1.7 billion in new construction took place in Ohio, Marshall and Belmont counties, with those in the natural gas processing industry noting billions more in plants and infrastructure are needed.
Horizontal drilling and fracking have allowed natural gas companies such as Chesapeake Energy, Hess Corp., Chevron, Gulfport Energy, Gastar Exploration, Trans Energy and others to operate profitable wells in the Upper Ohio Valley.
A brief explanation of how natural gas comes into play goes like this: first, seismic trucks invade the area, shaking the ground to find large pockets of natural gas trapped sometimes a mile beneath the surface in the Marcellus and Utica shales. Energy companies then hire abstractors to descend on county courthouses, researching deeds to find out just who owns mineral rights on certain tracts of land.
Landmen then approach the mineral rights owners to offer a lease, typically five years, to extract the natural gas.
Companies must decide where to locate the physical well pad, as one pad can handle up to 640 acres. A permit from the state has to be acquired and then, after everything is in place, drilling can begin.
The cost to drill a single well in the Marcellus and Utica shales can run upward of $10 million. Each well pad can hold up to six or even eight wells.
A relatively new drilling technique perfected by Range about a decade ago is known as horizontal drilling. Using this technique, drillers spud a mile or more vertically into the earth, before turning the bit horizontally, with some of those lengths also extending out to a mile or more. This allows for vast amounts of natural gas to be captured by each well - in some cases, such as in Belmont County's Egypt Valley, more than 30 million cubic feet per day.
The well is then cased in layers of steel and cement to protect the surrounding surface. With a well drilled, a company such as Halliburton comes in to frack the well. Once that is complete, the well is ready for production.
But before anything else can be done, pipelines to transport the gas from the wellhead to a processing facility need to be in place. Once that's complete, the gas can be sent to a processing facility such as the Blue Racer Midstream plant in Marshall County, with natural gas liquids being shipped to other facilities such as Fort Beeler for further processing.
And get this with processing facilities: to date, billions has been spent on construction of these sites throughout the region, with billions more coming in the next few years. That means construction jobs, permanent full-time work at the plants and, as is the case in Marshall County, huge increases in the county's property tax valuations.
The anatomy of a well usually doesn't draw much attention until the fracking process comes into play. During that process, millions of gallons of water and chemicals, under pressure, are injected into the newly-drilled - and cased - well, forcing apart the shale formation, usually a mile or so underground.
Though fracking has been used in this country for more than 50 years, new advances in horizontal drilling allow companies to extract much more natural gas and oil from each well than previously possible. However, some still question the safety of fracking, as they fear the procedure may allow chemicals or methane to migrate into drinking water supplies.
Not every frack job requires the same solution of chemicals, so not all substances will be used for every well. Some common fracking chemicals include hydrochloric acid - found in swimming pool cleaner, and used to help crack the rock; ethylene glycol - found in antifreeze, and used to prevent scale deposits in the pipe; isopropanol - found in deodorant, and used to reduce surface tension; glutaraldehyde - found in disinfectant, and used to eliminate bacteria; petroleum distillate - found in cosmetics, and used to minimize friction; guar gum - found in common household products, and used to suspend the sand; ammonium persulfate - found in hair coloring, and used to delay the breakdown of guar gum; formamide - found in pharmaceuticals, and used to prevent corrosion of the well casing; borate salts - found in laundry detergent, and used to maintain fluid viscosity under high temperatures; citric acid - found in soda pop, and used to prevent precipitation of metal; potassium chloride - found in medicine and salt substitutes, and used to prevent fluid from interacting with soil; and sodium or potassium carbonate - found in laundry detergent, and used to balance acidic substances.
Despite the chemicals, industry leaders point out there is no proof that fracking contaminates groundwater. But that's not the only concern for health officials.
Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department Administrator Howard Gamble and Michael McCawley, chairman of the Department of Occupational & Environmental Health Sciences in the School of Public Health at West Virginia University, are concerned about air pollution associated with drilling and fracking.
"The levels of benzene really pop out. The amounts they were seeing were at levels of concern," said Gamble in describing the results of some testing his department recently performed at well sites throughout Ohio County.
"The concerns of the public are validated," he added.
McCawley has found high levels of benzene in the air near one Wetzel County well site, which he said were so bad he would recommend "respiratory protection" for those in the area. The concern with air pollution centers around the number of diesel trucks entering and exiting a drilling site each day.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some short-term symptoms of benzene exposure include dizziness, rapid heartbeat, headaches and tremors. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services maintains that high levels of benzene in the air can cause leukemia.
West Virginia law requires wells be drilled at least 625 feet away from an "occupied dwelling," but Gamble said this distance may not make much difference because the benzene is probably not coming from under ground. Instead, the diesel motors associated with large trucks and compressor stations can cause significant levels of benzene, he said.
Along with the chemicals used in the process, companies use millions of gallons of water and millions of pounds of sand to frack each well. That has led to concern about the nation's water supply, as the frack water, when recaptured, must be sent to a recycling facility before possibly going in the ground at the next well site, or even injected into a disposal well.
A plan by GreenHunter Water to build a frackwater recycling facility in Warwood also has come under fire, with concerns about the safety of Wheeling's water supply - the plant is about 1 mile upriver of the city's water intake - and also the Warwood neighborhood.