By CASEY JUNKINS
ST. CLAIRSVILLE, Ohio - They may have little in common with the "forty-niners" who invaded California more than 150 years ago, but the abstractors and drillers pouring into Belmont County have led some to believe a modern-day Gold Rush of sorts is under way.
Mary Catherine Nixon is not sure of the full impact the Utica Shale natural gas boom will have on the county. But she does know that each and every day, dozens of abstractors rush to her office to search for more and more properties that companies such as Exxon Mobil, Gulfport Energy, Antero Resources, Hess Corp. and Chesapeake Energy can lease for oil and natural gas exploration.
"One day (recently), we had 52 people waiting at the door to get in at 8:30 (a.m.)," said Nixon, Belmont County recorder. "Some of them are saying this could end up being like the California Gold Rush."
Nixon and her staff first started seeing an increase in activity more than two years ago, a time when drillers were first considering Belmont County as a target for horizontal drilling and fracking. The traffic has increased during the interim period, largely due to positive drilling results.
The Gulfport Stuntzman well south of Barnesville is one of the reasons drillers are so active in Belmont County.
Based on initial production numbers and the going rates for oil and natural gas, West Virginia University Marshall Miller Professor of Energy Tim Carr said this well could be producing as much as $100,000 worth of revenue per day.
Gulfport also has the "monster" - as labeled by energy investment firm Global Hunter Securities - Shugert well that yielded as much as 28.5 million cubic feet of gas per day deep within the Egypt Valley area near Morristown.
Much of the high value for the gas underlying parts of Belmont County is that it contains wet ethane, propane, butane, pentane and oil - in addition to the dry methane gas.
Nixon's office is now so busy on a daily basis that she has to enforce a 10-minute time limit for the use of office computers, so that multiple abstractors have the chance to look up deeds. While many deeds have been scanned into electronic format over the years, some are still only accessible through large books in the Recorder's Office.
The office is now open seven days per week, with the gas companies funding overtime for Nixon's staff.
"The companies are very cooperative with us. If we have any problems with any of their workers, they address it immediately," she said.
"It does obviously get crowded, though, but we are a public office that has to let people come in."
Nixon said the title search portion of her office will be closed this Friday to allow for some minor renovations, but she said the main counter area will still be open.
"I am so glad to see Belmont County get this," she said. "So many farmers had virtually nothing. Now, they are getting some money."
As abstractors continue their title searches - and drillers continue digging holes in the ground - Belmont County is also preparing to host the second annual Ohio Valley Regional Oil and Gas Expo. The event - free for general attendance - is slated for 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 24 at the James E. Carnes Center, just west of St. Clairsville.
"The response last year was so overwhelmingly positive, and the event was greeted with such enthusiasm there was no question that we would host another expo in 2013," said Belmont County Commissioner Ginny Favede.
"Last year, the oil and natural gas drilling industry was new to Belmont County. Now that we've seen more of what the industry has to offer, we're also seeing significant growth in industry overall," Favede said. "It's an exciting time for Belmont County."
Port Authority Director Larry Merry was thrilled with last year's response to the event, so he encourages local businesses to exhibit or attend.
"It was encouraging to walk through the event last year and see that not only did we have oil and gas companies meeting and generating business, but also banks, insurance companies, marketing firms and other companies exhibiting their services," Merry said. "It shows that the oil and gas industry has the breadth and the reach to impact the local economy in more ways than just leasing and drilling."