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Rural Sullivan County, PA, Braces for Marcellus Drilling

The Marcellus Shale industry and associated gas pipeline construction are a threat to the water supply, nearby roads and "aesthetic aspects" of a historic mountain resort community in rural Sullivan County, PA, according to conservation group Preservation Pennsylvania -- problems that one local official says the entire rural county must prepare to face.

The primary concern for the Eagles Mere historic district -- a late 19th century resort community situated around a spring-fed lake 2,100 feet above sea level in the Allegheny Mountains -- is damage to the water supply, according to Preservation Pennsylvania's annual listing of the state's most endangered historic properties. The historic district is considered significant in the areas of architecture, recreation and conservation, the group said.

"If the presence of the lake or the quality of the water in it is impacted -- either through excessive water consumption or the contamination of surface or groundwater -- the central core around which the historic district formed, and continues to be focused today, would be ruined." Noise from drilling operations, construction of private access roads and heavy truck traffic on area roads also threaten the resort, while pipeline construction "has the potential to impact aesthetic aspects of the project area."

The group called for cooperation among landowners, public agencies and drilling companies to allow gas extraction in the Marcellus without damage to significant archaeological and historic resources.

Preservation Pennsylvania's Eagles Mere concerns are emblematic of the growing pains the area as a whole needs to address, according to Sullivan County Commissioner Darla Bortz.

"We don't have pollution because we have no industry whatever in our county. Our only industry is tourism and farming and lumbering," Bortz told NGI's Shale Daily. Sullivan County has an estimated population of about 6,200.

"I would say we might have 25 or 30 permits that have come through the county so far to request soil disturbance on properties...there might be 20-25 wells that have been drilled, but we have no pipeline in Sullivan County yet, so you can't transport that gas until the pipeline is in place." The majority of drilling in the area is taking place in nearby Bradford, Lycoming, Susquehanna and Tioga counties, which are among the largest producing Marcellus Shale counties in the state, Bortz said.

From July 1, 2009 to June 30, 2010 there were 15 permits issued in Sullivan County, according to the Pennsylvania Bureau of Oil and Gas Management. Chesapeake Energy picked up 11 permits and the other four went to Chief Oil & Gas. There was no recorded Marcellus production in that county as of June 30.

"Fortunately for Sullivan County, it hasn't really hit us that hard and we've been able to observe what's going on in the counties around us. But it is coming and we know it's coming and we hope that we're preparing correctly for it. It will be an economic increase to our county, but we want to be very careful that we don't ruin our county and that we don't leave a bad footprint for years to come."

Because there is no county-owned land in Sullivan County, the three-member commission doesn't have the power to limit drilling near Eagles Mere or anywhere else. Any leases that have been signed are between private citizens and drilling companies, Bortz said.

"The only thing we can hope is that the industry obeys the laws and does the things that are best for our land, and that's what we're asking our citizens to do -- 'be mindful of what's going on around you.'"

A third of the land in Sullivan County is owned by Pennsylvania in the form of state game land, state forest land or state Fish Commission land, and the drilling and mineral rights to significant portions of those acres were withheld by the landowners who gave it to the state, Bortz said. "So even the state doesn't have the authority to say 'we're going to drill' or 'we're not going to drill,' because the person that gave them the land many years ago retained those rights, and they want the money."

A recent survey of likely voters in Sullivan, Bradford, Lycoming, Susquehanna, Tioga and nine other northeastern Pennsylvania counties found public opinion "largely supportive" of development of Marcellus Shale production (see Shale Daily, Oct. 8, 2010). While 37% of respondents said the growth of the gas industry should be encouraged, 46% said drilling should be limited because of threats to the environment.

EXCO Resources Inc. recently announced that it plans to acquire more than 50,000 prospective net acres, primarily in Sullivan and Lycoming counties in northeastern Pennsylvania, under a $459.4 million agreement with Chief Oil & Gas LLC (see Shale Daily, Dec. 23, 2010).

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