Western Pennsylvania has experienced “bit of a drilling boom” during the past year with drilling permits up 50% as a result of soaring oil and natural gas prices, said a spokesman for the state agency which oversees the regulating and permitting of wells.

The state is seeing the spurt in drilling activity in “unusual places” and by unlikely actors, such as inside municipalities, parks and graveyards, and by school districts and churches, said Tom Rathbun, a spokesman for the Bureau of Oil and Gas Management in Harrisburg, PA.

For instance, the Plum Borough School District outside of Pittsburgh, PA, was issued a permit to drill for oil and natural gas. It will likely sell the production and use the proceeds to supplement its annual budget, he noted. In Mercer County, which is northwest of Pittsburgh, a church gave the go-ahead to drill in an unoccupied section of a graveyard, Rathbun said.

In Erie, a resident of a wealthy neighborhood drilled a well to supply fuel to his own home, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.

Rathbun expects the burst of drilling to last as long as prices remain lofty. “As long as it’s worth their while to keep pumping it, they’re going to do it,” he told NGI in a telephone interview. Current prices for both oil and gas, as well as the addition of more pipe infrastructure, have made it profitable for people to re-open old wells in the state.

It’s a “quick payoff, a quick turnaround on your investment,” he said in explaining the new-found interest in exploration and production throughout Pennsylvania, but mostly in the resource-rich western half of the state.

“There’s a bunch of drilling going on in Fayette County,” which is south of Pittsburgh. He said that while people are drilling for both oil and natural gas, the focus is on gas.

A number of the gas wells in western Pennsylvania are located in shallow gas fields, but Rathbun noted that some people are going “pretty deep” — as much as one mile.

He estimated that there are approximately 200,000 drilling permits outstanding in Pennsylvania currently. Rathbun said about 4,000 permits were issued in the state during 2004, up 50% from 2003.

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