Fracking in Pennsylvania: What goes on behind the scenes?

Fracking has revolutionized the US energy landscape, but the technique is controversial. One energy blogger takes a tour of a fracking site for himself, to see what all the fuss is about.

Alex Brandon/AP/File
A drilling rig is seen in Springville, Pa., in this file photo. One blogger shares his experience peeking behind the scenes at a fracking site in Pennsylvania.

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 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.

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 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.

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.

Source: A First-Hand View of Fracking in the Marcellus Shale

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