PENNSYLVANIA -- It's been called the "gold rush" of the 21st century, only this time the buried treasure is natural gas. Enormous reserves are buried far below the American landscape.
One of the places where "X" marks the spot is Pennsylvania.
"This is an absolute blessing that we have been able to unlock this resource," said Matt Pitzarella of Range Resources, a company drilling for natural gas in Pennsylvania.
"What it can do is, for the first time, we have a real ability to take control of our energy future," he explained.
Marcellus Shale Formation
Reducing America's dependence on foreign oil is critical these days now that costs have rocketed well over $100 a barrel again.
Located about a mile and a half below the surface, the natural gas is in what's known as the Marcellus Shale Formation.
The huge rock formation is about the size of Greece and runs underneath about two-thirds of Pennsylvania as well as other Appalachian states. It is estimated to hold enough natural gas to meet American energy needs for more than 15 years.
Trillions of cubic feet of natural gas are believed to be trapped in the shale, but recent advances in drilling technology are freeing the gas from its rock prison.
Rig workers drill down near the target rock, and then over -- horizontally -- into the Marcellus shale. This is followed by hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking or hydrofracking.
Drillers pump massive amounts of water mixed with sand and other fluids into the shale at high pressure to break up the rock and release the natural gas, which then flows up the well bore.
Once on the surface, the gas can be used for home heating, electricity, and powering cars.
Range Resources was the first company to drill in the Marcellus Shale Formation in 2004. Seven years later, the company has more than a million net acres in the region.
"We're entering a golden age of natural gas right now," Pitzarella told CBN News.
"We were on a one-way ticket to becoming just as dependent on liquefied natural gas from Russia as we are on imported oil from the Middle East and other parts of the world," he continued. "We now have a 200-year supply of natural gas and growing in the United States of America."
Pennsylvania is a growing contributor to that supply, with the number of wells jumping from just four in 2005 to nearly 1,500 last year.
"We've added in Pennsylvania alone 65,000 new jobs last year, largely because of this industry," Pitzarella said. "We think we can create a quarter of a million jobs over the next 10 to 20 years."
More jobs draw in more people, boosting the state economy and the finances of individuals.
Supply store owners like Paul Battista have tailored their inventories to meet the demands of the natural gas industry, resulting in a boom in profits.
"From '08 to '09, we probably had a 30-35 percent increase in our gross sales," Battista said. "And from '09 to '10, we had a 100 percent increase in our business. And so far, 2011, we're seeing another 100 percent increase over 2010."
The starting annual salary for a driller is around $80,000, and land owners who lease their property for natural gas drilling can also receive a big payoff.
"We got a signing bonus -- $2,000, I believe, an acre," said Steve Shuba, who is leasing his land. "It's a nice little chunk of change for doing nothing."
And that's just the signing bonus. If the natural gas flows freely under a person's land, the royalty checks can be quite lucrative.
"I believe that there's enough money that's going to come out of this that my wife and I can probably start seriously looking at retirement in a few years," said Rick Baker, another land owner leasing his property.
The 'Fracking' Controversy
However, the Marcellus shale drilling boom is not below the surface when it comes to controversy. In fact, its regulation is the subject of debate by state lawmakers.
The natural gas industry is also on the radar of environmental groups, who are concerned about the impact of the drilling on the water, air, and landscape.
Environmentalists are concerned that toxic wastewater produced from the hydrofracking isn't properly treated before it's dumped into rivers that supply drinking water.
"What happens to the wastewater coming out of that process, which is some of the most toxic water in the world, needs to be handled carefully, treated appropriately, recycled a hundred percent if possible," said John Quigley, an environmental consultant who used to lead Pennsylvania's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Recent testing in seven rivers by Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection showed all samples at or below normal background levels of radioactivity.
Air Quality Concerns
Air quality is also a concern, as well as changes to the landscape and how they affect wildlife habitats.
"I think Pennsylvania, as we talked today, is probably the strongest state regulator of natural gas drilling. But I don't think our regulations are yet strong enough," Quigley told CBN News.
"It's a new industry and new parts, so there's going to be a lot of questions," Pitzarella said. "We have to be transparent and accountable and do things the right way."
"Now there are a lot of concerns that have been completely overblown or outright meant to mislead people," he added.
In spite of the controversy, there is common ground. Both environmental groups and industry leaders are quick to share how natural gas burns more cleanly than coal and oil, producing less emissions.
--Originally aired on April 14, 2011.