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Drilling success in area only matter of time

I used to cover the business beat here, writing countless stories about growing high hopes for new local riches expected to come from the vast natural gas resources located in the Utica Shale.

The shale play, of course, is a massive reserve encased in layers of rock miles beneath the Mahoning Valley earth’s surface.

Many of us remember the huge commitment BP, Consol, Halcon Energy and other big-name oil and gas companies made here in the form of mineral rights lease contracts with cash “signing bonuses” for many property owners in Trumbull, Mahoning and Columbiana counties.

Hopes were high. Certainly, no big company like BP would invest here if it didn’t really believe it would pan out.

The construction of pipelines began. Oil and gas industry suppliers began opening. Vallourec made a massive investment in a pipe factory near the Girard-Youngstown line.

I researched the industry, learning about technology and “downstream” petro-chemical businesses that could develop here from byproducts of natural gas drilling.

I had to hold back my excitement. I was, after all, a journalist covering a huge story about an emerging industry. I had to remain neutral, professional and, as all my J-School professors had relentlessly lectured, “without opinion” in my writing.

But hey, let’s face it, I’m not a robot. I live in this community and I knew what this type of horizontal drilling could mean for our Valley, particularly considering its history of dashed hopes and economic demise. I was silently cheering for the immense economic potential this natural gas industry could bring.

I recall driving over narrow snow-covered roads in rural Trumbull County on Dec. 31, 2012, in search of the area’s first horizontal natural gas well where drilling into the Utica Shale was about to begin.

I was hurrying because I wanted to get home. My husband and I had New Year’s Eve plans with friends. Still, I just couldn’t bear to pass up this opportunity to see and photograph this amazing site, and to share it with newspaper readers.

As I rounded a curve on Hayes Orangeville Road in Burghill, I suddenly had to catch my breath. There before me was a towering drilling rig. It was surrounded by giant cranes and heavy equipment not far from the country road.

The “Brugler” well would be the first in Trumbull County to tap into the Utica Shale.

As months went by and more test wells were drilled, challenges erupted. I wrote many stories and spoke to many experts who began predicting the shale play’s “sweet spot” would be further south, probably in the area of Guernsey County.

Months and even years later, drillers slowly pulled out of our area, explaining that the Utica shale play in this part of northeastern Ohio was simply too narrow or thin for their sometimes mile-long drill bits to maneuver.

Most experts remained optimistic about the future, however, acknowledging that the oil and gas reserves indeed are here and that it’s only a matter of time — albeit years probably — until geologists perfect more advanced technology to access them.

Last week, I had the opportunity to chat with Steven Winberg, assistant secretary for Fossil Energy in the U.S. Department of Energy, after he spoke at a Regional Chamber breakfast.

I was pleased to hear Winberg talk about the drilling industry’s improving technology, the volume of resources and the potential to develop the petro-chemical industry that still exists here.

He said, amazingly, if this region, including Appalachia, were an independent country, it would be the third largest natural gas producer on earth. Think about that.

In respect to geology and thin shale formations, Winberg said developing technology in coming years will allow us to extract oil and natural gas from thinner formations. That will be possible due to artificial intelligence, high-performance computing and developing data with high-performance computers.

It’s not going to happen in tomorrow for northeast Ohio, Winberg said. But he is confident it’s going to happen. When it does, that will be a game-changer for our region and our economy.

blinert@tribtoday.com

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