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By Geoffrey Styles on Jul 3, 2013 with 25 responses

A First-Hand View of Fracking in the Marcellus Shale

Touring a “Fracking” Site in Pennsylvania

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 week 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 “pad” I toured is located in Cogan House Township in rural Lycoming County, atop the Marcellus shale formation. This site visit for bloggers and other media was arranged by API, which also 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.

A Tightly Run Ship

I’m no stranger to industrial sites or oil fields, and I’ve 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.

Environmental Impact

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 site, or 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 near 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.

Leaks Cost Money

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.

Each Well “Pad” An Entire Wind Farm

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 worthy subjects for another post.

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. The 8 billion cubic feet of estimated lifetime gas production per well could generate more than 1.2 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity in a 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 75 turbines.

Conclusion: The Local Face of the Revolution

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 energy revolution of the last 40 years.

  1. By exdent11 on July 4, 2013 at 8:11 am

    Geoffrey,

    Now that you have seen a hydro-fracked well , I would suggest you visit a propane /butane/pentane fracked well. Instead of 4 million gallons of water , less than 100 thousand gallons of propane/butane/pentane [ the formula changes depending on the formation's requirements ] are needed so truck traffic is up to 80% less. Since the fracking mix reverts to a gas after fracking pressure is withdrawn, the propane/butane/pentane is 99% recovered for sale or reuse in the next well [closed loop] . There is no water to be trucked out or decontaminated on site; again less truck traffic. Safety procedures are even more rigorous than in the wells you saw. The most intriguing aspect of this technology is well lifetime production can exceed hydrofracked wells by as much as 20 to 30 % in many formations . Please look up recent released results from a small drilling company called Blackbrush using this technology from Gasfrac Energy Services. This alternative to hydrofracking should receive more attention.

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    • By Geoffrey Styles on July 6, 2013 at 11:37 am

      I’ve written about that and other low-water fracturing techniques elsewhere: http://energyoutlook.blogspot.com/2013/04/will-water-limit-fracking-in-arabia.html All of them appear to be more expensive at this point. Do your figures indicate otherwise? It’s also worth putting the water consumed in fracking into perspective. The numbers seem very large, until you compare them to other, arguably less valuable uses of water: http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidblackmon/2013/07/01/water-for-fracking-in-context/ That takes us into a deeper discussion about the sustainability of current water policy, overall.

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      • By exdent11 on July 6, 2013 at 5:04 pm

        All I know is the latest talk is ,with new custom designed mixtures of propane/ butane/ pentane fracking solutions, the company is saying that maybe able to do fracks cheaper than water in some formations. Plus , if production is 20 -30 % better over the life of the well, they are already competitive,

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        • By Geoffrey Styles on July 8, 2013 at 10:51 am

          If so, and given the abundance of gas liquids from many of these formations, we should be seeing waterless fracks taking off like a rocket, especially with gas prices low enough to squeeze producers to reduce costs. Is that happening?

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          • By exdent11 on July 9, 2013 at 2:43 pm

            Never underestimate the force needed to overcome inertia. Hydro-fracking has been used for sometime; huge expertize and capital are tied to this method.I’m sure you could name a number of technology advances that took decades to become adopted.

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  2. By Russ Finley on July 6, 2013 at 11:30 am

    A few questions.

    1) Is the company obligated to compensate the local community if the operation were to damage local water supplies?

    2) What are the odds of ground water contamination happening?

    3) How many square feet of land does the finished operation cover?

    4) Are the pipes that carry the gas underground?

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    • By Geoffrey Styles on July 6, 2013 at 11:46 am

      Great questions. #1 is a function of state law. My understanding is that in Pennsylvania the answer is yes. Re #2, I had meant to include the land footprint. The sites we visited or drove by were all on a couple of acres. Drilling multiple, horizontal wells from a single “pad” minimizes the footprint, especially compared to older, single vertical well approaches, and to some other energy technologies. And yes, both gas and water pipes were underground, except for temporary water pipes feeding the current completion site.

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  3. By Hans Nicolaisen on July 7, 2013 at 12:09 pm

    I’m having some problems with the “each well pad could equal an entire wind farm”.
    Dividing 1.2 billion kWh by 80 million equals 15, not 75. (Not that I’m a fan of wind.) Also, to get 1.2 billion kWh out of 8 bcf assumes a very low heat rate for CCGT plants. Certainly not the average of installed US CCGT capacity.
    But what I really question is the 8 bcf EUR/well. That comes from the linked presentation by Anadarko at the Citi gathering. They must have been serving some pretty good KoolAid.

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    • By Hans Nicolaisen on July 7, 2013 at 3:34 pm

      After I wrote above I saw that the figure was for five wells and not one, so my mistake getting 15 instead of 75 turbines. Sorry for my error.

      But, the 8 bcf EUR is so at odds with Dave Hughes’ analysis of Marcellus that I’ve sent him a mail with link to this article. The Anadarko presentation at Citigroup does mention “high grading”, but 8 bcf might be taking that too far. EIA has total Marcellus EUR/well at 1.56.

      Maybe Dave will add comments later, but not sure.

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      • By Wildcatter on July 16, 2013 at 9:05 pm

        A lot of the wells in the Marcellus have already produced a cumulative gas of more than 3 BCF in less than 2 years, so the majority of the wells in the Marcellus definitely have an EUR greater than 1.56 BCF.

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        • By Hans Nicolaisen on July 18, 2013 at 11:09 am

          If that’s true, those wells probably would have to be in Susquehanna or Bradford counties and with decline rates, such as they are, after two or three years wouldn’t get much higher. Certainly not to the 8 bcf mentioned in the article, since 60-70% is produced in first 3 years.

          Dave Hughes’ analysis, using HPDI/DrillingInfo data, shows average EUR’s for those two counties at a little over 4.5 and a little under 4 bcf, respectively. Lycoming comes in at a little over 3. Most counties are much less.

          My only reason for posting here is because I think the article gives too rosy a picture. Especially the 8 bcf EUR. That’s just Anadarko cherry picking – and the author chose to go along with it.

          As I wrote earlier, if you’re advising people who are going to make decisions on whether to buy (expensive) pipeline capacity you need to do better than that.

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          • By Wildcatter on July 21, 2013 at 7:11 pm

            It is true that those shale gas wells produce more than 50% of their EUR in the first couple of years, but they will keep producing for 30-50 years at very low decline rates (essentially less than 5%/year). This has been proven in other tight gas plays in the Rocky Mountains and other regions in the country. Even in Pennsylvania there are vertical Devonian shale gas wells that have already been producing for more than 50 years now, so there is no reason that those massive horizontal wells would not produce for more than 50 years and have EURs even more than 10 BCF…. 8 BCF is a conservative EUR to say the least. And by the way, the wells I mentioned in my previous comment are in Lycoming County.

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            • By Hans Nicolaisen on July 23, 2013 at 7:59 pm

              Can you provide a source of hard data that substantiates your earlier claim that, “A lot of the wells in the Marcellus have already produced a cumulative gas of more than 3 BCF in less than 2 years…” ?

              And how you come to asserting, “…so there is no reason that those massive horizontal wells would not produce for more than 50 years and have EURs even more than 10 BCF…. 8 BCF is a conservative EUR to say the least.”

              Thanks

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    • By Geoffrey Styles on July 8, 2013 at 10:49 am

      I conservatively assumed a heat rate of 6,700 BTU/kWh. That’s better than the overall US average of around 7,400, which includes combustion turbines/peakers, but clearly higher than new, state of the art cc units.

      Like you I’ve seen a wide range of EURs for these wells. I do question whether EIA or any outsider has better info than the actual producers. They are on the hook for any claims to shareholders and subject to SEC regs.

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      • By Hans Nicolaisen on July 8, 2013 at 9:32 pm

        Geoff, The EIA has nat’l average of CCGT at around 7,400. Doesn’t include combustion turbines. Anadarko was cherry picking with 8 bcf, and Chris A talking about Cabot booking 14 bcf is really stretching things. Backed by “hard data”? Marcellus hasn’t been around long enough to really have hard data. Just speculation. Gold rush mentality.

        I know it must have been fun to get that all expenses paid trip to the well pad, but I’m not sure you owed Anadarko and the API quite such an article.

        And surprised RR didn’t require some editing.

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        • By Geoffrey Styles on July 10, 2013 at 1:34 pm

          Hans,

          If a visit to a drill site is your idea of fun… I didn’t owe anyone anything and disclosed who paid for what. (I drove myself there.) As I have always done, I called it as I saw it, with experienced eyes. I doubt Robert would have seen anything different.

          Re the heat rate, the 7400 Btu/kWh figure is what you get it if you divide EIA’s total US power sector consumption of natural gas by EIA’s net generation from gas figures. State of the art CCGT is around 6,000, which would give an even higher generation estimate for the gas.

          If you don’t like Anadarko’s EUR estimate, please do the math with your own sources. I agree at this point in the life cycle, it’s all estimates. No matter how you slice it, it’s still a whale of a lot of energy from a tiny site.

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          • By Hans Nicolaisen on July 11, 2013 at 8:37 am

            Geoff, Anadarko (and Cabot) are cherry picking the best of the sweet spots and I’d hardly use that for typical Marcellus EUR’s.

            Because I’m an advisor to several key decision makers here in Maine, a month or two ago I had to listen to Kathryn Klaber (CEO of Marcellus Coalition) when she came here to do a song and dance promoting Marcellus. Believe me, when people are thinking about spending a couple hundred million to buy pipeline capacity (with ratepayers on the hook if something goes wrong), it pays to do careful analysis. And be skeptical of those doing the selling.

            So far as heat rates for gas ccgt, see – http://www.eia.gov/electricity/annual/html/epa_08_02.html

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          • By spin on July 11, 2013 at 11:55 pm

            The article creates an impression that you are a novice, curious bystander but you mentioned a disclosure (where?). Have you received any money from Anadarko Petroleum or other hydraulic fracturing interests?

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            • By Hans Nicolaisen on July 12, 2013 at 9:10 am

              Good observation, spin. I’m a numbers guy so that’s what I was looking at but, now that you mention it, I re-read the article and it certainly does read more like a paid PR piece than independent assessment.

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            • By Geoffrey Styles on July 12, 2013 at 10:46 am

              I don’t normally respond to pseudonyms, but your questions merit a response, to avoid the creation of any false impressions through innuendo. I thought I was clear on these points in the post (and in my bio, which I guess you missed), but apparently I could have been even clearer.

              1. As I stated, “I am no stranger to oil fields.” I’ve worked in and around the hydrocarbon and broader energy industry for 30 years. The only aspect to which the term novice would apply here is that this was my first visit to this type of gas well: horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing.

              2. As I stated, API paid for accommodations (at a non-luxury hotel in Williamsport), and Anadarko paid for dinner the night before, for the entire group of bloggers and print journalists. I presume they also bought the bag lunches we ate on the site.
              I was not paid by Anadarko, API or anyone else to write this post, nor was there any expectation, expressed or implied, when the trip was arranged or at any subsequent time, that I would write anything other than my candid and independent opinion.

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  4. By Chris A on July 8, 2013 at 12:03 am

    Great piece. Come visit us in Susquehanna County. As to skeptics regarding ultimate recovery (EUR), Cabot is booking 14 bcf. Backed by hard data, too. Of course, we are in the sweetest of sweet spots. See my article:

    http://energyindepth.org/marcellus/whole-lotta-natural-gas-goin-on-in-susquehanna-county/

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  5. By Bethoughtful on November 28, 2013 at 4:51 pm

    There is a vast difference between a wind turbine, which uses no chemicals to run, doesn’t need millions of gallons of water to extract the product, has no spillage into the groundwater and doesn’t harm people. Fracking on the other hand hurts humans, plants and animals, pollutes ground water as well as releases many emissions into the atmosphere. A wind farm never poisoned a family.

    There is no balanced risk. We rely on water to live, the amount of water used, the waste water- that is not properly disposed of, and the chemicals that seep into the ground, streams and into people’s wells is a risk no one should be willing to take.

    As “no stranger to industrial sites and oil fields” you’re pockets must be stuffed with the cash they provide you to write lies about the risks involved in these processes. How do you sleep at night knowing you’re supporting a system that has been proven to destroy the environment and kill people.

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    • By Russ Finley on November 29, 2013 at 4:23 pm

      There is a vast difference between a wind turbine, which uses no chemicals to run

      All wind farms are part of a hybrid system that includes diesel or natural gas (which are chemicals) peaking power plants that take over when the wind dies. The turbines are simply a component of that hybrid system that make it more efficient by reducing fuel consumption, as do combined gas cycles and waste heat point of use systems. No natural gas = no wind farms.

      Like wind and solar farm siting, fracking has to be carefully regulated to prevent harm to the natural environment. Some wind farms are devastating to local bird and bat populations, some solar farms have destroyed precious desert tortoise habitat and consume large amounts of water in desert systems.

      It would be dumb to fight for a ban on all wind and solar instead of fight to do it right. Ditto for fracking. When you think about it, there are environmental groups that are fighting almost every form of energy production.

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  6. By Nate Hornblower on March 30, 2014 at 6:21 pm

    Have you been to any sites where the consequences of the drilling have had a negative effect on the surrounding residents? There seems to be plenty of evidence where there has been groundwater contamination. I don’t doubt that this site was run by a “well-trained and experienced team” but this is just one site.

    Up to 600 chemicals are used in the fracking process, but companies aren’t required to disclose any of them – not even known toxins and carcinogens! Why? Could anyone where share some of that information that these companies fail to?

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