When the legislature decided to use a budget measure last week to impose a drilling moratorium in Bucks County, the provision seemed to be influenced in part by a new report issued by the U.S. Geological Survey measuring natural gas in an obscure formation called the South Newark Basin. What is the South Newark Basin?
Like the Marcellus Shale, the South Newark Basin formation dates back to prehistoric times, about 270 million years ago. Algae and plants decayed among boulders, sandstones, red siltstones, coal, and gray and black shales. It stretches beneath a densely populated area of New Jersey, and into parts of Montgomery and Bucks County. The potential oil and gas deposits would come from the gray and black shales, according to the report.
The U.S.G.S. report is entitled “Assessment of Undiscovered Oil and Gas Resources of the East Coast Mesozoic Basins of the Piedmont, Blue Ridge Thrust Belt, Atlantic Coastal Plain, and New England Provinces, 2011.” Undiscovered resources means that the assessment is not based on any active well production. The U.S.G.S makes an educated guess, using data of known reserves in other similar formations that have been drilled.
“This has been a real challenge for us,” says U.S.G.S researcher James Coleman, who worked on the report. “Because we look at discovered resources (of a similar formation) and compare that with an area that has not been drilled, and postulate based on how the discovered area has performed.”
Coleman says he did look at the data of a deep test well drilled in the South Newark Basin, which was never put online, most likely because it didn’t make economic sense at the time. But Coleman is quick to point out that his job is not to evaluate market forces regarding oil and gas development. The U.S.G.S. publishes information and it’s up to individual companies to assess that data. The companies themselves also do their own estimates. So how much gas does Coleman predict to be lying beneath northern New Jersey, Bucks and Montgomery counties?
“We think there’s a 90 percent probability that there’s gas in the South Newark Basin and that gas is between 363 billion cubic feet and 1,698 billion cubic feet,” said Coleman.
To put that in perspective, the U.S.G.S used the same method to estimate the entire Marcellus Shale contains a mean probability of 84 trillion cubic feet of gas. If you combine the undiscovered estimates from all five basins listed in this report, the Marcellus is 20 times larger than all of them combined.
Here’s another way to look at it, in April of 2012, according to the Energy Information Agency, U.S. consumers used 1.9 trillion cubic feet of gas.
So how likely would we see a drilling boom in Bucks and Montgomery counties? Not very. With natural gas prices at record lows, it’s unlikely any companies would want to take the risk of drilling in untested formations when they have the booming Marcellus to tap. The drilling moratorium in the South Newark Basin is in place until 2018, in order to give the Department of Natural Resources time to do an environmental assessment.
But while Pennsylvania lawmakers were placing a moratorium on drilling the South Newark Basin, North Carolina legislators did just the opposite. The same U.S.G.S report shows that state’s Deep River Basin has even more potential gas than the South Newark Basin, including more valuable natural gas liquids. Legislators in North Carolina overrode a Governor’s veto on a fracking bill, paving the way for gas drilling.