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Gas drilling needs to improve, Chesapeake official says

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The natural gas industry needs to keep working to reduce the on-the-ground impacts of the Marcellus Shale drilling boom in West Virginia's Northern Panhandle, a top official from Chesapeake Energy said Thursday.

"With natural gas, everybody likes the blue flame," Chesapeake vice president Scott Rotruck told a business conference in Charleston. "Making it can be problematic. Nobody likes that part.

"I can tell you this: The sausage-making will get better and better and better."

Rotruck was among the speakers at the close of a two-day conference the West Virginia Manufacturers Association sponsored to promote the prospect of landing a cracker plant and "downstream" facilities that would turn natural gas wastes into marketable products.

West Virginia political leaders and business boosters continue to push the idea, despite last week's announcement that Shell Chemical had picked a site in western Pennsylvania for further study as a potential cracker plant location.

Rotruck said he believes Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and other state officials did everything they could to land the Shell facility, and that West Virginia is well positioned to secure one of several other similar projects being considered by other companies.

Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake itself has had an up-and-down relationship with West Virginia.

Four years ago, the company dropped plans for an eastern regional headquarters in Charleston after a Roane County jury awarded $400 million to land and mineral owners who sued alleging they were cheated them on gas royalties, in a case Chespeake inherited when it bought former Columbia Natural Resources operations. Some state officials worried their efforts to land a cracker plant would be harmed by Chesapeake's agreement last year to a long-term contract to ship ethane from its wells to the Texas Gulf Coast.

Also, Chesapeake and other companies have recently cut back on their natural gas drilling and production, but Rotruck noted those reductions were among so-called "dry gas" sites.

West Virginia's section of the Marcellus is primarily "wet gas," which includes various liquid byproducts that would be target ingredients for a cracker plant.

"We're really pretty well situated," Rotruck said.

 Last month, Chesapeake disclosed in financial reports that it was facing a criminal investigation of Clean Water Act problems at three of its sites in West Virginia.

Rotruck did not discuss those situations, but said Chesapeake is working hard to improve environmental performance at its operations.

"It's no longer wildcatting," Rotruck said. "It's perfecting the technique and the methods and the execution."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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