NEW CUMBERLAND - The long lines of water tanker trucks on state Route 2 are a tell-tale sign that hydraulic fracturing has come to Hancock County.
Although drilling activity has been on the rise in other Northern Panhandle counties, the Allison Farms natural gas well on Chapman Road is the first fracking site in Hancock County, according to county officials who expect more to come.
"We certainly hope that that flourishes," Hancock County Commissioner Jeff Davis said. "The outcome of the well will determine if Chesapeake (Energy) or other gas companies plan to move forward with future drilling."
Earlier this week, officials with the county Office of Emergency Management, area volunteer fire departments, Hancock County Schools, the 911 dispatch center, and the Hancock County Commission met with representatives of Chesapeake Energy, the well site lease-holder, to discuss safety protocols and future development opportunities.
OEM Director John Paul Jones said it was a "meet and greet," an opportunity to learn about fracking procedures and the potential impact on affected communities.
"The biggest issue is traffic and public safety," Sheriff Mike White said.
Truck traffic on Route 2, Ballantyne Road and Chapman Road has noticeably increased over the past few weeks, officials say.
The well currently is in the process of being hydraulically fractured, said Chesapeake Energy spokeswoman Jacque Bland.
"Hydraulic fracturing is part of the well-completion process, and that typically takes 10 to 14 days," she said.
As of April, an estimated 1,600 Marcellus wells had been drilled and completed in the Northern Panhandle - Marshall, Wetzel, Tyler, Ohio, Brooke and Hancock counties - since 2006, according to the West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey.
But Hancock County has been a late-comer to the game. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection reported in the spring that at least two Chesapeake wells were in development in Hancock County. That's compared to 43 in Ohio County and 34 in Brooke County.
"I think it's just a growth process," Hancock County Commissioner Mike Swartzmiller said. "Everyone can't be first. Slowly they're moving into Hancock County."
Marcellus shale drilling in the Tri-State Area began in Washington County, Pa., around 2006 and then migrated to West Virginia as mapping of the Marcellus indicated more productive areas, said Mike McCown, immediate past president of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia.
The level of activity in a Marcellus Shale region has a lot to do with the price of natural gas, the number of leases acquired in an area, and whether there is enough infrastructure - pipeline, roadways, etc. - to support it, McCown said.
"The whole process takes years," he said.
Records from the Hancock County Clerk's Office reflect a steady rise in the number of local oil and gas leases going to Chesapeake Appalachia, a subsidiary of Chesapeake Energy Corp. Weirton-based law firm Rokisky & Associates reportedly closed an oil-and-gas lease deal recently with a large group of Hancock County landowners.
Bland said Chesapeake's interest in Hancock County is growing.
"While the focus of our activity so far has been in Brooke and Ohio counties, we do have leasehold in Hancock County and are exploring development opportunities on this acreage," she said.
An article in the spring 2012 issue of The Play, a quarterly publication of Chesapeake Energy, touted Ohio, Marshall, Brooke and Hancock counties as being rich in wet gas, also known as liquids-rich gas.
"Wet gas is produced the same way as dry gas," the article said, "but its end products and byproducts have a wide range of uses beyond heating and power generation."
According to the article, Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake acquired approximately 47,000 acres "ripe with natural gas liquids" in the four counties, including Hancock, through an October 2010 acreage trade with Range Resources Corp., an oil and gas exploration and production company based in Fort Worth, Texas.
"There's been a push toward the wet portions (of the Marcellus Shale)," McCown said. "With high oil prices, that causes the liquid portion of the production from these wells to be much more valuable. ... Chesapeake has announced that they were dramatically decreasing the dry gas activities in Pennsylvania and moving more of their activity to (Ohio and West Virginia) in search of wet gas and oil."
Swartzmiller believes Hancock County's time may have come.
"We are in the zone, so I think it's just been slowly coming our way," he said. "Hopefully, this is just the tip of the iceberg. The potential for growth is phenomenal."
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