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A Trip to Fracking Land

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Pads like these are a common sight from the skies of Pennsylvania.

Greetings from Pennsylvania.

That’s where I am this week, leading a group of Nicholas School colleagues on an “eco-fact-finding” trip. Our objective: to learn more about shale gas drilling, including the tandem two-step of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (collectively known as fracking)  that make it all possible. Here’s a bit of what we’ve seen so far.

Our Host

But first, a thank you. Our trip would not have been complete without a visit to a well pad in the act of being fracked, but we knew gaining that kind of access would not be easy.  And so we were delighted when EQT agreed to open their gates to us.

Headquartered in Pittsburgh, EQT has been in the natural gas business for some 120 years.  As natural gas companies go, EQT is a bit unusual in that it is vertically integrated — not only producing natural gas, but doing everything else, including delivering it to retail customers in the region. EQT owns production rights in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, and Kentucky covering more than 3.5 million acres. It has about 14,000 wells, more than 11,400 miles of pipelines and about 275,000 customers.

(Related Package: The Great Shale Gas Rush)

EQT claims that it “stands out from the pack with … its environmental conscientiousness.”  Indeed, the fact that EQT allowed us access suggests a refreshing level of transparency and confidence in its practices. On the other hand, the company is not without its environmental critics (see here, here, here and here).

Touring a Pre-Production Well Pad

We were taken two active well pads. The first was a pre-production facility where the wells were in the process of being drilled. When completed, the pad will hold eight individual wells, each extending about one mile down into the Marcellus formation before turning 90 degrees and extending laterally for another mile and a half.  At the time of our visit, five of the eight had been fully drilled, and they were working on the sixth.

The well pad is in rural Greene County, about 90 minutes outside Pittsburgh. And while it may be surrounded by the bucolic countryside, make no mistake — we were visiting an industrial-scale operation. As we arrived at the site, a large phalanx of trucks clogged the unpaved country road heading to a nearby well pad that was about to be fracked. The pad we visited was noisy and at times, some in our party, myself included, felt queasy and light-headed from diesel-like fumes. (The drilling had been halted on the day of our visit to repair the drill rig, and so I suspect the site was quieter and cleaner than normal.) And safety was paramount —  fire-retardant suits, hard hats, and steel toe boots were de rigueur – and potentially distracting items like cameras and mobile phones were left at the gate.

Industrial yes, but also high-tech. You might remember some of the scenes from the movie There Will Be Blood Drilling is not quite the same today. There weren’t even that many people working on the pad. And that’s because a good deal of the operation is directed from EQT headquarters in Pittsburgh, where high-tech telemetry and computer programs guide the drill bit on its two-and-a-half-mile journey down into and through the Marcelllus shale.

Perhaps because our party included the scientists who have found evidence of methane contamination in drinking water wells near to fracking operations,  our hosts made a point of demonstrating the care they take to avoid any environmental contamination. For example: the triple steel-pipe casings they use to isolate the fracking fluids, flowback and produced water as well as natural gas from the environs. Enough to prevent any pollution? Depends I guess on how you define “any.”

Well Pad in Production

Following our tour of the pre-production well pad, our EQT hosts took us to a well pad in production; i.e., the wells had been drilled and fully fracked, and were now in the business of pulling natural gas out of the ground and sending it on its way to heat homes and generate electricity. It was pretty much a night-and-day comparison. Gone were the rigs, the big generators and the truck traffic, as was the need for fire-retardant suits and the like. Also gone were the noise and the fumes. The pad had been reduced to a gravel-covered rectangle of about 100 by 150 feet. The surrounding areas had been reclaimed and planted in alfalfa by the farmer who owned the land.

The pad had four wells, each capped by a “Christmas Tree” (see photo) and each yielding about 1.5 million cubic feet of natural gas per day — with all four wells producing enough each day to heat 80 homes for a year.* The EQT folks opined that the well pad would remain in this state, quietly pumping natural gas for quite a while – perhaps 50 years. (Not all would agree [see also this PDF].)

A Bird’s Eye View of the Countryside

The next day we left EQT behind and boarded helicopters to get a view of what’s going on in Pennsylvania from the perspective of a thousand feet or so. We flew northeast across the state from the Pittsburgh area to Scranton with two stop-offs: first to Williamsport to visit a plant that treats fracking wastewater and then to Montrose to get a sense of what’s going on in small-town Pennsylvania.

From the air Pennsylvania is a stunningly beautiful state in June – every shade of green imaginable covers rolling mountains, forests and farmland. But it’s a state that also has the mark of the energy industry.  Fracking is still in its infancy but the countryside is already pocked with well pads and crisscrossed with pipelines.

But natural gas and fracking are only one part of the story. A surprising number of ridges in the state are festooned with wind turbines and there are quite a few surface coal mines.  Also visible is the orange-red taint of rivers and streams polluted by acid mine drainage – a decades-old legacy from coal mining. Suffice it to say all of these don’t quite blend with the natural greens of the countryside. By far the greatest scars came from the coal mining operations.

Say what you will about fracking – with the real and serious concerns about water pollution that have emerged with the practice – from the air the footprint of fracking is minuscule compared to that of surface coal mining.  Wind not so bad.

*This assumes the average home consumes 75,000 cubic feet of natural gas annually primarily for heat.