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Drilling for $$$

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

WEST UNION -- When Warren Haught closes his eyes, he can see the flame shooting into the sky. He can feel the heat and the pulse of the fast-escaping gas vibrating against his face.

But the Harrisville man's fantasy isn't just a dream. He and several other gas producers are hoping to make such a high-pressure, deep-well hit a reality -- and all in Doddridge County.

"We already had the small rig in and put in the surface casing," said Haught, who is drilling supervisor for a deep-well location along U.S. Route 50 between Wiseman and Buckeye Run roads.

A large rig from Oklahoma is supposed to be on site sometime in September, ready to drill some 15,500 feet beneath the surface.

Haught and a mix of out-of-state companies operating as Transcapital Investment are not the only ones with an eye on the county's lower depths. Dominion and a Pennsylvania drilling company called Fairman Corp. also have deep-well permits from the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Similar wells have gone into Roane and Calhoun counties in the last two years, as producers search regionally for the Trenton-Black River layer of natural gas.

Unlike shallower layers of sandstone that have been producing natural gas throughout West Virginia for decades, the Trenton-Black River layer is pocketed in calcium-carbonate limestone.

Deep-well drilling, which has become commonplace in other Appalachian Basin states such as New York, is also expanding into Ritchie and Braxton counties and may someday head into Harrison and Lewis, drillers say.

Mike Herron, executive director of this state's Independent Oil and Gas Association, thinks the new permits are just a beginning and that the cash may someday flow as fast as the gas as more sub-contractors get involved.

"It's an exciting new discovery, but we don't have all the answers yet," Herron said. "If we knew exactly where it (Trenton-Black River) was, Exxon and Mobil would be here."

While it is certain Transcapital will be first to drill deep in Doddridge, Dominion and Fairman may be racing for second dibs. Both are doing seismic testing.

"There's a pretty good success rate so far when you look at the whole basin with New York included," said Ben Hardesty, general manager of Dominion's exploration and production for the North Eastern U.S.

Dominion is better prepared than most companies to handle the fast production and large volumes possible with deep wells, he added, because it already has many leases in state and the lines needed to transport the fresh product.

That company hopes to drill its first deep well in Calhoun County by the end of the year.

Noting a price tag that's approaching $2.5 million per well -- successful or not -- Alan Fairman, vice president of Fairman Corp., does not believe there will be a huge rush in any county, however.

He said West Virginia is a pricey drilling site because of the uneven topography and because the gas here is under higher pressure, requiring heavier-gauge equipment.

Fairman also hopes to drill in Calhoun County this fall and, if tests warrant it, in Doddridge County by 2003.

Ora Ash, Doddridge County commissioner, is looking at the wells from a different perspective -- tax revenue.

"For a small county budget, that could be a pretty good shot in the arm," he said.

He said he has another concern as a commissioner, however.

"Some of the (surface) landowners are somewhat concerned," Ash said, of the large well sites required for deep drilling. "Somebody is getting rich, but it's usually not the surface land owner."

He hopes operators will work hard to meet their legal and ethical responsibilities to compensate surface land owners for any damages that occur.

Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1447 or by e-mail at nedinger@exponent-telegram.com.

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