An Energy Lifeline: Fracking a Game-Changer for U.S. Economy

The natural gas boom in the United States could change the global energy picture — and life for the people of southwestern Pennsylvania.

Natural-gas rigs dot the landscape in Pennsylvania.
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WASHINGTON COUNTY, PA.—Driving along the narrow roads of southwest Pennsylvania through the hamlet of West Middletown, you can't miss the legacy the declining coal industry has left behind. Barbed, leafless tree branches reach across the road as the wild landscape slowly reclaims the town's once majestic homes.

But head just a few miles down the road from the crumbling town and a different picture of the area emerges. Pristine new white fences cordon off lush farms; million-dollar state-of-the-art barns have replaced rickety, decaying wooden ones.

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Perhaps most important is the increasing number of forest-green well pads that now dot manmade gravel mounds in the Pennsylvanian foothills, an emblem of the booming natural-gas industry that has sprouted from the dying embers of the coal industry in just a few short years.

As much as the discovery of massive stores of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale formation has already started transforming the state's economy and landscape, it also has the potential to fundamentally change the nation's role in the energy security conversation.

(Video Credit: Diana Soliwon/USN&WR)

But the staggering amount of natural gas discovered around the country doesn't come without cost and controversy. Although extraction of the resource has brought with it immense economic benefit and thousands of jobs, it also has riled up environmental activists and locals who'd rather not deal with the side effects of a booming industry.

Global energy demand is projected to increase almost 35 percent from 2015 to 2035, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, with developing nations such as China and India continuing to put pressure on the world's energy supply. As nuclear energy has fallen out of favor after the Fukushima disaster, natural gas—previously a forgotten fuel relegated to second-class status—has become increasingly important in the equation of how to meet the world's growing energy demands.

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Today, natural gas provides about a quarter of the electricity in the United States and heats about 60 million American homes. If geologists and scientists are right about the large amount of natural gas in the United States and Canada, the energy source will likely become a much bigger part of the mix around the globe, especially since its price has dropped so drastically because of heightened production. "It's all happened very quickly—a decade ago natural gas was considered almost a boutique fuel," says Katie Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition. "Now it's a world-class resource."

All of these new opportunities are thanks in part to the landmark discovery of geologist Bill Zagorski, the vice president of geology at Range Resources and the "Father of the Marcellus," who in 2004 met with the same fate as many well drillers had before: a failed natural-gas well. Back then it wasn't news that the Marcellus Formation, which covers a large swath of Pennsylvania and parts of Ohio, New York, and West Virginia, contained deposits of natural gas. "This stuff was public for 30 or 40 years [but] it was never considered to be a reliable source of gas because it was either too expensive or there were all kinds of urban myths [such as] if you touch the formation with water it'll swell up," Zagorski says. "There were all kinds of reasons why it was never [mined]."

But it was actually water—lots and lots of water—that turned out to be the key to unlocking the natural gas trapped in the shale. A fortuitous call with a fellow geologist working on another shale formation prompted Zagorski to try a new method on his failed well: a combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." This time he hit the jackpot. "It just took the right combination of circumstances, technology, and timing to make these discoveries occur," he says.

Today scientists know even more about the shale rock formation. Although the Marcellus is probably the best known, it's actually sandwiched between two other formations, the Upper Devonian and Utica, which further magnifies the potential of the entire area. This area "seems to be a geologic overlap of all the major shale plays, so it's almost like a triple play here. That's what's exciting," Zagorski says. "I bet we haven't even scratched the surface of 5 to 10 percent of this yet as an industry."