Eastern Kentucky is endowed with many natural resources. Those resources are not just limited to coal. Another resource found beneath the mountains of eastern Kentucky is natural gas.
Like coal, natural gas fuels electrical needs but is known to burn cleaner than coal. Though some are talking about the possibility of using coal to fuel automobiles, Brandon Nuttell with the Kentucky Geological Survey says we shouldn’t try pouring natural gasoline from natural gas wells into our gas tanks any time soon.
Natural gasoline consists of the liquids that are sometimes collected from natural gas wells as substances such as propane become liquid above ground. Natural gas itself refers to methane and is separated from the other fuels.
While methane is being considered as a possible alternative transportation fuel, Nuttell said that natural gasoline fuels burn very hot and would burn up a car’s engine. He did add that if you added plenty of oil to your car, it might be possible-- at least for a while.
Even if natural gasoline won’t work well as a vehicle fuel, natural gas certainly works well in fulfilling many energy needs. And Kentucky is already a proven supplier of a product in demand and with a rising price tag.
In 1818, an oil well was drilled in southeastern Kentucky’s McCreary County. Since then and through 2005, over 160,000 known wells have been established for harvesting oil and natural gas in Kentucky. Most of these wells are located in the eastern coal fields.
Eastern Kentucky sits on Devonian Black Shale, specifically the Ohio Shale-- a bed of rocks rich in a shallow reserve of natural gas located in fractures within the shale. The shallow reserves make the natural gas reserves even more economically important to the region because they translate into lower discovery and production costs.
While Brandon Nuttell couldn’t offer a specific estimate of Kentucky’s natural gas reserves, he does look at the region’s production very optimistically. “Over the next couple of decades, I think that eastern Kentucky will continue to increase natural gas production. It has been for a couple of years now,” Nuttell said. “The future is bright.”
Nuttell explained that different groups have widely varying estimates for Kentucky’s natural gas. The best however being that eastern Kentucky holds about 9-23 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas.
According to Nuttell, in 2005, 98 percent of Kentucky’s natural gas production came from eastern Kentucky. That translates into an active and promising industry of employment for the region. All of that natural gas earned Kentucky over $600 million and amounted to a severance tax of $28 million.
Coal is not the only natural resource producing severance tax funds for eastern Kentucky counties. Of that $28 million, half went back into the state’s general fund while the other half was distributed among natural gas-producing counties. And since the bulk of natural gas comes from eastern Kentucky, “a lion’s share went back to eastern Kentucky,” Nuttell said.
While many are quick to point out the environmental concerns associated with coal mining, no one hears too much about the environmental impacts of drilling for natural gas. And the reason could simply be that it’s hard to pick the gas wells out once they’ve been established.
Nuttell said that many of the wells are located on former mining areas and old roads for strip mines are often used. That means that natural gas producers don’t need to go in and knock down more trees and clear more land.
Natural gas wells are set up in a flat spot. At the site, a pipe will come up from the ground and the whole well isn’t very large at all. The excavation is grassed over and usually creates very little disturbance for the area. Nuttell said that once trees and other vegetation grow up around the well, it’s hard to point a gas well out unless you actually walk up on one.
But just because you don’t see them as easily as you see coal mining sites doesn’t mean that they aren’t there. In fact, they’re dotted all over eastern Kentucky.
The natural gas industry in Kentucky holds promise of not only continuing to grow as an important part of of eastern Kentucky’s economy, but also for future uses of land such as carbon-dioxide sequestration. That process could help push up natural gas reserves that are harder to reach while disposing of a harmful bi-product of energy production from fossil fuels like coal.
Nuttell noted that the natural gas industry does face some challenges now. One of those is the ability to deliver natural gas to market. He added however, that plans are underway to extend eastern Kentucky’s pipeline capacity. Nuttell also said that the availability of both the equipment and trained labor for drilling natural gas wells are problems the industry is facing.
“It can be a very dangerous job,” Nuttell said. And labor forces equipped with the training to handle the required heavy machinery and knowledge of the rules and regulations governing the industry are in short supply. But as the price of oil and natural gas increases, more and more people are drilling for natural gas. As more people get into the industry, it gets harder to find the rigs for drilling the wells. But Nuttell said that more people are starting to manufacture the equipment now as well.
As Brandon Nuttell noted that the challenges the industry is facing are challenges that the industry is addressing, more opportunities for economic growth become available. Not only is the natural gas industry in higher demand in eastern Kentucky, but the need for trained labor and more equipment creates more employment positions itself-- the industry needs teachers, machinery operators, manufactures and more to support itself.
As our country and our world begin to shift focus on fuels other than foreign oil, eastern Kentucky’s abundance of resources could become even more economically important to the region. The Appalachian mountains and valleys are not only rich in coal, they are the largest source of Kentucky’s natural gas. And the methane that makes up that natural gas is an important component of plans to switch to alternative fuels while often offering another use for former coal mining sites. Environmentally and economically, natural gas is a bright spot for eastern Kentucky.