WOODSFIELD - With one in eight of its residents out of work following the closure of Ormet Corp. last fall, Monroe County is in need of some good news.
Perhaps just in the nick of time, the county is quickly becoming one of the state's most prolific natural gas producers.
In a span of just three months, Monroe County saw production surge by 74 percent, from 3.5 billion cubic feet to 6.1 billion, second only behind Carroll County, according to figures released by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources for the fourth quarter of 2013.
Overall, natural gas production in Ohio increased 28 percent between the third and fourth quarters of 2013, from 33.6 billion cubic feet to 43.1 billion. The number of wells reporting production also increased from 235 to 335.
Even with the increased production, Monroe County's 12.5 percent unemployment rate is almost two full percentage points worse than any other county in the state. But county Recorder Ann Block, whose office is tasked with maintaining the county's property records, has had a front row seat for the shale rush, and it gives her hope that fortunes in her county are about to improve.
"It's been a long time coming. I think the citizens of Monroe County truly deserve it," she said. "They've scraped along for a long time. ... Hopefully there will be some jobs to come."
Monroe County also boasts the state's most productive individual well: Antero Resources' Gary Unit 2H, located off Ohio 379 in the western end of the county, which produced 1.3 billion cubic feet of natural gas between October and December. The average producing well in Ohio yielded one-tenth that amount, at 129 million cubic feet, according to ODNR.
Gulfport Energy's Stutzman well in southwestern Belmont County, the state's most productive between July and September, remained third, yielding 823 million cubic feet of gas between October and December.
It seems the concept of quality over quantity is a theme throughout southeastern Ohio's Utica shale fields, as the state's 16 most productive wells all are located in Monroe, Belmont and Harrison counties.
Carroll County remained Ohio's most productive county by far, accounting for 18.8 billion cubic feet, almost 44 percent of all gas production in the Buckeye State during the last three months of 2013 - but Monroe County's 6.1 billion cubic feet came from only 16 wells, while Carroll County reported 178 producing wells. Belmont County, meanwhile, reported 17 producing wells but ranked fourth in the state with 5.4 billion cubic feet of gas produced.
Based on the activity in Block's office, it appears things are just getting started.
From morning until closing time, the action in Block's office is fast-paced. Abstractors researching mineral rights shoulder their way through tight spaces lugging heavy records books, looking to stake their claim to counter space that is at a premium.
"It gets crowded in here, and there's been a few scuffles. ... Space is a commodity," Block said.
Belmont County Commissioner Mark Thomas finds the ODNR report, which shows a 15-percent increase in production between the third and fourth quarters of 2013, encouraging. He, too, believes this is only the beginning.
"I fully expect to see dramatic increases in gas production throughout 2014 and well into 2015 and beyond," Thomas said.
He said the sudden increase in activity has brought opportunities as well as challenges to Belmont County.
"The shale boom has transformed the county in many ways, from job creation to increased tax base for the county," Thomas said. "The positives are that we have more jobs, more people who will be living here and more opportunities for our residents, including manufacturing and retail. The negatives are increased demands on our infrastructure, including roads, bridges, water and sewer lines and these issues will be very costly to eastern Ohio counties.
"Overall, to date, it has been a positive transformation and we simply hope that the Ohio state legislature and the governor will work with us and recognize how the demands of the industry are affecting eastern Ohio counties."