CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The continued development of Marcellus Shale deposits to produce natural gas is a major economic force in West Virginia.
That development will continue to create jobs but also stir controversy about the negative environmental impacts of drilling deep into the ground to reach the deposits.
Nicholas "Corky" DeMarco, executive director of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association, said, "The price of gas has been pretty low for the past couple of years.
"It is all about the fact there is so much gas coming out from the shale and the demand is so low. We have had exceptionally warm winters, which led to people not turning their thermostats up. That is why the prices are depressed. It is a supply-and-demand issue."
DeMarco said gas sales and revenues would pick up if the industry received government approval to "export some liquefied natural gas to some of our international trading partners.
"We are also hoping to be able to switch fuels, to use natural gas as transportation fuel in the future to power railroads and your personal vehicles.
"You will see some of those things happening. There is so much gas in these shales that it should not affect the consumer adversely. The price may go up a little bit, but it will not go up as it did after [Hurricane] Katrina and those types of things."
DeMarco said the industry hopes natural gas prices rise from their current price of $3.35 to $3.50 for a thousand cubic feet to about $4.50 for a thousand cubic feet.
"That would bring a lot of people back into the game. And we have to have uses for our natural gas," DeMarco said. "If you don't have outlets for it, you will continue to have supply and no demand."
Other industries might benefit from increased gas production, too.
Mark Glyptis, a longtime president of the United Steelworkers local union at the Weirton plant, believes West Virginia's steel industry could benefit from the development of the Marcellus Shale reserves.
"With the Marcellus Shale drilling, there will be a large amount of steel needed for pipes. There will be a great deal of drilling and the need for pipes to transport the gas. We have to make sure the government gives us a fair chance to compete," Glyptis said.
West Virginia has huge reserves of natural gas deep underground in the Marcellus Shale deposits that stretch from western New York through Pennsylvania down into West Virginia and eastern Ohio.
Recovering that gas offers great economic opportunities to investors. And it could create thousands of additional good-paying jobs for workers who drill deep underground wells and who operate the gas plants.
Recovering Marcellus gas, critics say, also creates major environmental problems, including fracturing underground rock layers and pumping poisonous chemicals into the earth to help recover the gas.
Pollution from those chemicals, critics argue, could seriously damage local streams and rivers.
Hydrofracking for Marcellus Shale gas has the support of many major political leaders, including Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and most state legislators.
Cracker plants can also produce a wide variety of other products, including: diesel fuel, gasoline, naphtha and ethylene -- a major product used by the plastics industry.
Dave McMahon, a Charleston lawyer, represents surface property owners who do not own mineral rights under their properties. Marcellus Shale drilling projects near their homes could threaten the value of their properties, he argues.
Conventional gas drills cost $300,000 to develop, McMahon said, while hydrofracking gas drills can cost between $3 million and $6 million.
McMahon and his clients also worry about environmental problems, which include chemical-polluted drilling water flowing into streams, creeks and underground water reserves.
The noise generated by hydrofracking drilling projects, McMahon said, also will mean that some people "can't sleep at night."
Another dispute that has developed around hydrofracking projects is whether companies like Dominion Resources will continue importing dozens of workers from other states, such as Texas and Oklahoma, or hire more local workers.