It’s unlikely that anyone’s going to drill in the town of Tully into the now-famous Marcellus shale because the rock is too close to the surface. But that doesn’t mean drilling rigs and hydrofracking will bypass the town — and a large piece of Central New York.
Despite all the attention given to the Marcellus shale, there’s another, deeper rock layer in New York that is an intriguing mystery — bigger but economically an unknown.
It’s the Utica shale: a layer of rock thousands of feet deeper than the Marcellus and less well-studied. It covers a greater footprint of Central New York and might be an attractive target to drillers in areas that where the Marcellus doesn’t exist or is too shallow to hold any natural gas.
“They say they’ll never touch the Marcellus shale in Tully, and they’re right,” said town Supervisor Bill Lund. “It’s given people a sense of false security. The Utica shale could really be an impact for our areas that aren’t affected by the Marcellus shale.”
The potential of the Utica shale could help explain why gas companies have snatched up thousands of leases across Onondaga and neighboring counties, even in areas where the Marcellus doesn’t exist or is too shallow to be productive.
Far less is known about the Utica shale than the Marcellus; even the state’s 1,500-page environmental report on shale drilling concedes that information about how much gas the Utica holds is “sparse.”
Geologists and drillers say the layer is thinner than the Marcellus and probably contains less gas, but might be profitable enough to conduct the high-volume, horizontal drilling known as hydrofracking.
Some of the Utica shale’s mysteries might be unlocked soon. The first application to drill through the Marcellus and then hydrofrack the Utica shale was filed this summer by a Norwegian company on land it controls about 35 miles southeast of Syracuse, in Chenango County.
Norse Energy Corp. USA says it will start drilling in the town of Smyrna, which borders Madison County, when the state begins issuing permits. That could be as early as next year.
What Norse Energy finds in Smyrna could alter the course of drilling in Central New York.
“Part of what we want to do is basically show the market potential of both formations,” said Dennis Holbrook, spokesman for Norse. “There’s been a lot of show of the potential of the Marcellus; it would be good to show the potential of the Utica as well.”
The Marcellus and Utica shales are dark, organic-rich layers of rock and sediments that contain countless bubbles of methane, or natural gas. Over the past decade, drillers have perfected the technique known as hydrofracking, in which millions of gallons of water are shot underground at high pressure to fracture the shale and release the gas. After drilling straight down several thousand feet, drillers can turn sideways and “frack” the rock to unlock gas from vast underground fields.
The Utica has become a hot drilling layer in Ohio, where it contains more oil than gas. Oil is more lucrative for drilling companies because it fetches about three times as much money per BTU as natural gas, said John Holko, a board member of the Independent Oil & Gas Association of New York.
In New York, the Utica shale is what drillers call “thermally mature,” meaning most of the oil has been turned to gas under the high pressure of several thousand feet of depth. Preliminary data does show that the Utica is thinner and has less organic matter than the Marcellus, which means the Utica might not be as rich in gas.
“For decades and decades a lot of wells penetrated the Marcellus, so we have an idea of how thick it is,” said John Conrad, president of the gas-drilling consulting firm Conrad Geoscience Corp. in Poughkeepsie. “The Utica is so deep that only a fraction of those wells have gotten through. It’s much harder to predict the productivity of the Utica.”
One factor in favor of the Utica shale’s productivity in Central New York is that greater depth. That means there’s more pressure on the rock, which helps keep the gas in place. The pressure also means the gas will flow more quickly, like soda shooting out of a shaken soda can.
Drillers say fracking probably doesn’t make economic sense unless the shale layer is at least 2,000 feet deep. Gas has generally already seeped out of any shale shallower than that. That could make all of Onondaga County a Utica shale target, because the shale runs from about 2,000 feet in the northern edge of the county to about 5,000 feet at the southern edge.
The Marcellus comes to the surface in the town of Marcellus, and drops to about 1,000 feet underground at the southern edge of Onondaga County. It continues to slope underground until it is about a mile deep at the Pennsylvania border. The Utica shale pops out of the ground in Oneida County, but tilts rapidly underground until it’s nearly a mile below the surface in southern Madison and Onondaga counties.
That’s why Norse Energy hopes to start hydrofracking in Chenango County. The company has asked for a permit to drill the Norse-Housing 1H well about 4,800 feet underground, through the Marcellus shale and down into the Utica shale. The drill will then turn sideways and penetrate horizontally nearly a mile in the Utica shale, according to the application filed with the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Some geologists think much of the Utica shale in Central New York won’t ever see hydrofracking.
Taury Smith, the state geologist at the New York State Museum, said the Utica is simply too thin and contains too little gas in areas west of Madison and Cortland counties. The DEC shale report says the Utica layer is 50 to 300 feet thick in Onondaga County and up to 700 feet in Delaware County.
“I don’t think there will be any drilling in Onondaga County for the Utica,” Smith said.
For now, all hydrofracking is on hold while the state takes public comments on the environmental report and proposed regulations. The DEC says it could start issuing permits next year. More than 50 hydrofracking applications have already been filed, and all but the Norse application are for Marcellus shale in the Southern Tier.
Other gas companies are waiting for more information about the Utica shale before deciding whether to hydrofrack.
“We still have a long ways to go before coming to an understanding of the Utica in New York state,” said Raymond Savoie, chairman and chief executive officer of the Montreal-based Gastem Inc., which has leases on land in Central New York. “I’ll tell you we don’t even know right now what’s a good spot and what’s a bad spot. These are still unknowns.”