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A First-Hand View of Fracking in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale

  • Producing shale gas requires drilling numerous wells, often in regions that have seen little or no oil & gas activity for decades. Addressing environmental and other community concerns is crucial to acceptance.
  • On a recent visit to a shale operation in Lycoming County, PA, I was impressed by the rigorous attention I saw to safety, spill prevention, soil conservation, and other impacts. 

It’s easy to talk about the shale gas revolution in the abstract and forget that it is the cumulative result of thousands of operations in locations across the country. It combines the technological marvel of precisely planned and executed drilling more than a mile below ground with the efforts of teams of skilled workers on the surface, and affects the surrounding community in many ways. Last month I had my first opportunity to visit one of these sites, near Williamsport in north-central Pennsylvania. I also saw several nearby sites in different stages of development. Although I was consistently impressed, I also tried to observe with the concerns of shale gas critics in mind.

Anadarko Williamsport 001Anadarko Williamsport 004

The Anadarko Petroleum well site, or “pad” that I toured is located in Cogan House Township in rural Lycoming County, atop the Marcellus shale formation. API arranged this site visit for bloggers and other media and paid for accommodations in Williamsport. Anadarko provided experts from its local engineering and public affairs staffs and hosted a dinner with members of the community the evening before the site tour. No one paid me to write about the visit, nor was there any expectation that I would report anything other than my candid, objective opinion of what I saw.

I’m no stranger to industrial sites or oil fields. I’ve also invested countless hours researching and discussing shale drilling and hydraulic fracturing. When it comes to complex technical subjects like this, however, no amount of reading or Youtube videos can substitute for seeing the real thing and being able to talk to the people actually doing the job about how it all works.

One example of that is safety. Safety plans, targets and slogans are important, but it carries more weight when the site engineer looks you in the eye and says emphatically in his own words, “The most important thing is that everyone goes home at night,” and then proceeds to explain the stop-work rules, the “red zones” that have to be clear of workers when the fracking pumps are running, and other aspects of onsite safety. We were constantly reminded to watch where we stepped and to make sure we had multiple points of contact with the ground whenever we looked at something or photographed it.

Concern for environmental impacts was similarly thorough. I consider surface spills a much bigger potential risk to groundwater than fracturing a layer of shale thousands of feet below any aquifer. The first thing I noticed at the site, all five wells of which had already been drilled and prepared for fracturing, was the floor. The entire pad was covered with a three-layer mat of black felt, HDPE plastic and fabric, to isolate any spills from the ground. The pad was also surrounded by a berm to contain any spills, which would promptly be vacuumed up by a waiting truck. They even vacuum up rainwater. Yet the real key to spill control is prevention, which in Anadarko’s case is reinforced by its “Eyes On” program. This requires an extra observer any time a liquid other than fresh water is being handled or transferred. Soil conservation efforts looked similarly scrupulous.

Another issue I asked about was noise. I couldn’t gauge it for myself, because aside from trucks delivering supplies the site was shut down during our visit. It’s not prudent to have untrained people wandering around when 30,000 HP of truck-mounted pumps are running, injecting fluids down a well at nearly 10,000 psi. When I inquired, I was told that the pumps themselves were loud, requiring ear protection nearby but not at the perimeter of the site. How far the sound carries beyond the site is a function of terrain, foliage and weather conditions.

Then there were the fluids themselves. An Anadarko engineer described the company’s approach to the five wells at this site as minimal and “green”. The fracking fluid was a simple “slickwater frac”. The main ingredients consisted of around 4 million gallons of water per well–much of it filtered and recycled from nearby gas wells–and 4-6 million pounds of sand, to prop open the fractures created by high-pressure water. The formula also includes a little hydrochloric acid for downhole cleanup, and two other ingredients: a low dose of “biocide” to prevent corrosion from bacterial growth in the well, and a friction reducer, without which significantly higher fracking pressure would be required. The details of the chemicals used at the pad will be available on the public disclosure site www.FracFocus.org once the wells are complete.

I also inquired about methane emissions during well completion. Some critics claim–incorrectly, per independent analysis–that such emissions, along with other leakage, negate the climate benefits of shale gas. Although I was told Anadarko wasn’t specifically employing “green completion” techniques at this site, it was taking steps to minimize emissions, starting with having the gas gathering pipeline ready to go. As each well is completed, it’s hooked up to production so no methane escapes. That maximizes revenue. The site also had a temporary flare to burn off any excess gas from operations before the well could be connected to the pipeline. That sounds wasteful but is environmentally preferable to venting gas.

Of course for all the precautions and evident best practices there’s no disguising that while it is being prepared, drilled, fractured and completed, each drilling site is a compact industrial operation and hub of activity. Numerous trucks carry water, sand, chemicals and equipment back and forth. Anadarko has improved over 200 miles of country roads to handle this traffic, while minimizing freshwater haulage by the use of water pipelines connecting its sites.

The consolation for the neighbors is that the entire process runs its course like any construction project. A few weeks or months of intense activity are followed by years of unobtrusive operation, during which gas flows into pipelines and royalties into the community. The employment and other local economic benefits this creates are significant, especially for communities that have lost many of the industries that sustained their economies in the past.

Anadarko well

Several of the participants at the dinner the evening before drew comparisons to wind turbines, which are much taller than the drilling rigs used for gas wells, and remain on-site for decades. That got me thinking about relative energy contributions. At Anadarko’s estimated lifetime gas production (EUR) of 8 billion cubic feet each well could generate more than 1.1 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity in an efficient gas-fired power plant. By comparison, a 1.5 MW wind turbine would normally generate less than 80 million kWh over 20 years. So when brought online the five wells on the one pad I visited will together produce energy equivalent to a wind farm of more than 70 turbines.

Even if the ultimate recoveries from these wells turned out to be closer to the lower figures estimated by third parties from the limited data available to them, compared to those used in Anadarko’s calculations, it would still represent a very substantial energy yield for such a small site.

I came away from the tour with a strong impression of a well-trained and experienced team, focused on doing the job right — safely and with minimal impacts, because this is where they and their families live; the landowners from whom they lease their sites are their neighbors. And for all the truly impressive technology deployed, what really counts is the people using it.I can understand skepticism about the balance of risks and benefits from shale gas development–this is a skeptical age–but nothing I observed in Williamsport would validate such concerns. Instead, I saw a well-tuned operation that is a microcosm of the biggest US energy revolution of the last 40 years.

A different version of this posting was previously published on Energy Trends Insider.


Geoffrey Styles's picture

Thank Geoffrey for the Post!

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Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on August 1, 2013

A great review, from an important perspective. But while I agree with all presented criteria, I still think the process benefits from outside skeptics raising additional issues.

When I was employed as a biophysical chemistry grad student to build and perform high pressure (100,000 psi) hydrogen exchange kinetics in proteins stuff, the pressure and chemistry was a small fraction of the overall effort. While the method entailed labeling the protein with tritium, separation and measurement techniques; the intended question was, “What changes happen to the organic molecules at high pressure?”

So despite the absolute need of an industrial society to accept industrial activity, there remains the unknown impacts of several significant changes to bedrock geology (which I know nothing about) due to fracturing and solvation. We must accept risk, and we must try understand those risks. I wish we would stop yelling at each other, and start talking with each other. You do a great job moderating the dialog from the petrochemical side, Geoff.

Geoffrey Styles's picture
Geoffrey Styles on August 1, 2013

Thanks, Rick. Nothing involving energy is riskless, and shale resource recovery is no different. One of the problems with trying to have a sensible, rational conversation about risk is that too many folks stack up risks without regard for likelihood of occurrence and magnitude of outcome, and then treat the other side of the equation as though there were no benefits offseting these risks. As for the geology questions, most of those equipped to comment have a stake in this already, on one side or the other. 

John Miller's picture
John Miller on August 1, 2013

Geoffrey, it sounds like Anadarko is still the first class outfit I remember from my oil & gas days.  I am curious, have they made any recent advancements in well-wall casings?  Your post does a very good job of describing the surface safety and environment controls, but as you are aware some past (actual) ground water issues may have been due to casing failures where the well penetrated the water-table.

Also in recent years hydraulic fracturing opponents have apparently identified a major source of production well methane leakage was due to compressor, pump and/or valve seal leaks.  Did you notice if the compressors and pumps had state-of-art double seals?  And, did you notice any valves that were not capped/plugged that could inadvertently leak if someone did not fully/tightly shut the valves?

Lastly, I am curious if the production platforms were designed for ‘branched drilling’?  This is another innovative technology used in conventional oil & gas production that reduces the physical footprint of the individual production platforms.

Geoffrey Styles's picture
Geoffrey Styles on August 2, 2013

Darrel,

The benefits are not limited to the leaseholders who receive royalties; the entire community benefits. Take Williamsport, which has seen an influx of jobs–many filled by locals who would have had to move away to find comparably rewarding work–tax revenues at several levels, and infrastructure upgrades paid for by producers. Compare Williamsport to similar-sized cities in the southern tier of NY state, where a fracking ban blocks access to the same Marcellus resource.

On a broader scale, shale gas production is making segments of US manufacturing globally competitive again, while helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector, despite exaggerated concerns about methane emissions. This is enormously beneficial to the country as a whole.   

One of the basic challenges here is that we’re moving out of an era in which energy was produced in highly concentrated facilities far away from most of us, to an era in which energy is increasingly produced all around us, from unconventional hydrocarbons like shale gas, as well as biofuel plants, wind turbines and solar panels. It represents a blending of things formerly strictly separated into categories like industrial and residential, and the social aspects of this can be as tricky as the technical aspects.

Geoffrey Styles's picture
Geoffrey Styles on August 5, 2013

John,

Although branched drilling was discussed, it apparently wasn’t applied at this pad.  The rig was “stepped” over to each new well, which were all in fairly close proximity. Before they took us out to the field, local Anadarko staff provided an overview of the whole program, including the cementing of the upper sections of the wellbore to seal off againt migration of methane and fluids.  I didn’t hear anything unusual in that regard.

Great question re the double seals.  Wish I’d thought to ask it. I can follow up if you’re interested.

John Miller's picture
John Miller on August 5, 2013

Geoffrey, as you are probably aware, the possible ‘volatile organic compounds’ (VOC) emissions or leakage has become another growing argument against hydraulic fracturing technologies and unconventional oil & gas development-production.  Despite the fact as you pointed out in your post that drilling-production sites normally ‘flare’ (burn) natural gas (NG) to properly control and dispose of NG before full recovery and shipment into pipelines is feasible, arguments are being developed to the contrary.  The new-production opposition arguments apparently claim that methane leakage is routinely occurring at these well sites and combined with the higher GHG potential of methane substantially reduces the carbon reduction effectiveness of fuels switching from coal or petroleum to NG.  Any information you have that can help clarify some of the possible confusion or correct misinformation surrounding this subject will be helpful.

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