Marcellus Shale

The Marcellus Shale occurs at the base of the Middle Devonian Hamilton Group.  The basal portion of the Marcellus is high in organic-matter and has been a source for much of the oil and gas produced in New York to date.  For many years, geologists have known that the Marcellus contained natural gas but most wells drilled to try to produce it were unsuccessful.  Recently, the combination of long horizontal wells and high-volume hydraulic fracturing have been demonstrated to be effective at unlocking the natural gas stored in the organic-rich shale for hundreds of millions of years.  The organic-rich Marcellus is currently being drilled for natural gas south of the border in Pennsylvania and drilling in the Marcellus of New York may begin within the next year.

Organic-rich shales form when ancient organic matter such as marine algae, plankton, diatoms and spores form in the water column, fall to the sea floor and are buried in clay and other fine grained material before they have a chance to decompose.  As this organic-rich clay is buried and compacted it becomes harder and turns into shale.  Continued burial leads to heating of the rock and maturation of the organic matter.  The organic matter first turns into kerogen, which at temperatures of about 75ºC starts to expel oil.  The source rock is in the “oil window” until about 125ºC when it enters the “gas window” and most of the oil and some of the remaining kerogen turns into natural gas.  In the far western part of the state, the organic-rich Marcellus is in the oil window, but from Allegheny County east it is in the gas window.   Eastern New York was once the home to mountains that may have been as big as the Himalayas at one time.  When these great mountains existed, the Marcellus may have been buried more than 15,000 feet deeper than it is today. At that depth it was much hotter than it is in the surface -- probably more than 200ºC. 

The organic-rich part of the Marcellus ranges in thickness from 10 feet in south-western New York to more than 200 feet in the southern Catskill Mountain area (Figure 1).

Although the organic-rich part of the Marcellus Shale likely contains gas across most of that area, it is most likely to be developed with long horizontal wells where it is at least 3000 or 4000 feet deep and where it is at least 50 feet thick.  pic
Figure 1. Thickness of organic-rich Marcellus Shale in feet. Light blue along edge is where the Hamilton Group (including the Marcellus) outcrops at the surface.

Figure 2 shows the thickness map in colored contours and the burial depth to the top of the most organic-rich section in the black contour lines.  The organic richness decreases from west to east and it is possible that there is not enough ancient organic matter in some of the easternmost areas.

Figure 2. Thickness of Marcellus Shale in feet (colored contours) with burial depth to top of most organic-rich interval in the Marcellus (black lines).

The Geological Survey will continue to conduct research on the Marcellus Shale in order to provide citizens, other agencies and policy makers with geological information necessary to make informed decisions.

The Reservoir Characterization Group has also done extensive work on analysis of the Utica and Marcellus Shales and other natural gas reservoirs in the State.  Some of their posters and presentations are available here:




The New York State Geological Survey (NYSGS) is a bureau of
the New York State Museum in the New York State Education Department.