About 20 years ago, David McKain opened an oil and gas museum in Parkersburg to recognize the impact the industry had on the region.
But rather than focusing on the history, McKain, 77, who has spent most of his adult life in the oil and gas business, is now looking forward to a possible resurgence of the industry in the area.
"Oil and gas exploration and development back in the late 1800s had a dramatic impact on both Marietta and Parkersburg," McKain said. "I don't mean a little bit. It's what made these cities what they are today."
BRAD BAUER The Marietta Times
An old oil pumpjack rests outside the Oil & Gas Museum in Parkersburg on Wednesday. In the late 1800s, the oil and gas industry brought a tremendous amount of wealth to the region and shaped the downtown regions of Marietta and Parkersburg. There is renewed interest in oil and gas development in the region which could result in job creation and income from royalties for many landowners.
A century ago, this region was the "Middle East" of the oil and gas producing world, resulting in many fortunes being made, McKain said. Some of the first oil and gas wells ever drilled were in the Marietta, Macksburg and Parkersburg areas.
Although many area wells are still producing, there's speculation more could be developed due to new research and technology.
McKain said money made from those first area wells built many of the large Victorian homes and brick buildings that make up Marietta and Parkersburg. One of the first presidents of Exxon, now the Exxon Mobile Company, was from Parkersburg, he said.
History of Ohio's natural
gas and crude oil industry:
Ohio lays claim to the first discovery of crude oil in the U.S. from a well drilled in 1814 in Noble County.
In 1860, Ohio's first commercial crude oil well was drilled in Macksburg.
Commercial natural gas production began in Ohio in 1884.
To date, Ohio gas and oil workers have drilled more than 273,000 wells in 76 of the state's 88 counties.
Ohio ranks fourth in the nation in the number of wells drilled, following only Texas, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania.
Last year, Ohio produced more than 88 billion cubic feet of natural gas and 5.1 million barrels of crude oil. That's enough natural gas to heat more than one million Ohio homes and businesses each year.
Nearly 100 percent of the natural gas produced in Ohio is used in the state.
Source: Ohio Oil & Gas Energy Education Program
"There were many fortunes made here years ago in oil and gas, which truly built our downtowns and many of the beautiful large homes in our historic districts," McKain said. "But this new rush isn't going to be like the old days."
Although the industry has been filled with booms and busts, it is buzzing with excitement as advancements in drilling techniques are unlocking large natural gas deposits that are stored deep beneath much of eastern Ohio and the upper Appalachian region.
In recent months, many area landowners have been approached about potential leasing for oil and gas development. The land rush led to a number of local organizations to host informational meetings to help landowners and the public better understand the potential risks and benefits involved.
"A hundred years ago, you could start a company, drill straight down, hit a well and make a fortune," McKain said. "The potential rush we're talking about will take a lot of new technology, huge amounts of money and not many people around here have the technology or the millions it will take to open that kind of well."
Still, McKain and other oil and gas experts agree there is potential for the creation of many jobs and financial gains for landowners.
Charlotte Keim, president of the Marietta Area Chamber of Commerce, said the area is already seeing some of the benefits of the gas and oil exploration.
"Land agents or others working for the oil and gas companies are coming to the area and staying at our hotels while doing their exploration work," she said. "Marietta College, Washington State Community College and the Washington County Career Center are all working on developing programs to develop a workforce for the industry."
The recent excitement surrounds breakthroughs in tapping into thick shale formations that are buried at 5,000 to 15,000 feet deep.
Rhonda Reda, executive director of the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program, said most of the current work in the industry is along the Marcellus Shale formation, which runs across upstate New York, through western Pennsylvania and much of West Virginia.
Reda said a portion of the Marcellus formation extends into eastern Ohio but the best chance for a major boom here is finding ways to tap into the Utica Shale formation which covers most of the eastern half of the state.
"We've been successfully drilling into the Utica for over 100 years but because of new technology, such as horizontal drilling, which has really come about over the past 20 years, we're able to unlock resources that we just couldn't get to before," she said.
Reda said her group has spent the past 10 months working on projecting the potential benefits for Ohio. The study is expected to be released Tuesday.
"We're expecting there to be a major economic impact, especially in southeast Ohio," Reda said. "Washington County is already one of the oldest oil and gas producing areas in the country and it continues to be ranked among the top for new wells being developed and for oil and gas production for the state."
Reda said more than $2.4 million in landowner royalties were paid last year in Washington County. She said the number could "grow substantially" as Utica formations in the area are developed, which she expects to happen over the next four to five years.
There are 15,075 oil and gas wells in Washington County, with 4,485 currently producing, according to the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program.
The group says there are more than 273,000 oil and gas wells across the Buckeye state and in terms of natural gas and crude oil production, Ohio follows only Texas, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania.
McKain said his concern isn't that oil and gas will be found but rather that too much will be developed.
"My fear is that they will over-produce (natural) gas," he said. "They've already brought in a big pipeline (from the west) and we're producing huge amounts of gas. The price of gas has gone down and if it goes down too far, no one will be able to afford to invest in developing anything locally."
McKain said most conventional vertical wells that reach 5,000 to 6,000 feet cost $300,000 to $400,000 to open. He said the new wells can reach similar depths but cut across horizontally several thousand feet, cost between $4 million to $5 million to open.
"There was a time not that long ago you could go out and buy a drilling operation, go out and open a well for $20,000 to $30,000," he said. "Those days are over and it's almost impossible to get involved without huge sums of money ... I think what we have coming will bring employment and money to oil and gas people and those who own the leases but we won't have the entrepreneurs develop like we had in the past."