Drillers Explore ‘Groundbreaking’ Fracking Technique
21 January 2013
By Timothy Puko
Traditional vertical drilling for gas and oil could lessen in
favor of state-of-the-art horizontal drilling and hydraulic
fracturing of rock layers, perhaps as shallow as 1,000 feet
underground and not far from drinking water aquifers.
At least one Western Pennsylvania company is fracking rock about
3,000 feet down in Westmoreland County, slurping oil out of
formations about half as deep as the heavily tapped, gas-rich
If the technique catches on — industry experts suggest shallow
fracking is inevitable — it could be a boon to smaller drillers.
It could reshape state law and increase concern about the safety
of drinking water, experts say.
“What we‘re doing is unique. It is amazing. ... It is
groundbreaking,” said Ben Wallace, chief operating officer at
Penneco Oil Co. in Delmont. “Traditional well drilling doesn‘t
work under (today‘s) price structure. It‘s done.”
The basic technology behind shallow fracking has been available
for at least 20 years — coal mines use it to vent methane — but
it‘s more affordable than before. Improved technology helped lower
the cost, and the state‘s shale gas boom attracted dozens of
drilling support companies to the region, providing a much larger
available workforce for fracking.
Only a few companies are contemplating it, but the opportunity
could be a lifeline for small, family-owned companies that have
worked in Pennsylvania for generations, said Louis D. D‘Amico,
executive director of the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas
Traditional drilling essentially halted in the state because of
falling natural gas prices and increased competition from
billion-dollar multinational companies in recent years, Wallace
That pushed Penneco to experiment, drilling the state‘s first
horizontal fracked oil well from January to March 2011 under Lower
Burrell. It worked so well that the company is spending about half
of its $50 million drilling budget this year for nine more wells,
Oil wells, especially in Northwest Pennsylvania‘s historically
oil-rich rock layers, could be the juiciest target for any company
that follows Penneco‘s lead into shallow fracking. Shallow-fracked
gas wells likely would follow, experts said.
If natural gas prices rise to the levels they hit in 2007 and 2008
— about $8 per million Btu, more than double today‘s price — that
could push drillers to explore. It could inspire more companies to
experiment with the technology in other resource-rich layers under
Pennsylvania, said officials at Consol Energy Inc., which owns
more than 10,000 conventional wells.
“The more readily available the tools are, and the more people
know how to run them, the more affordable it is,” said Matthew
Imrich, an engineering manager at Cecil-based Consol. “If the
market is right, then you‘ve got a lot of opportunities.”
Many environmental experts consider the process to be relatively
safe, though expanded horizontal drilling heightens risks when
it‘s done closer to aquifers.
One risk involves working near or under abandoned wells at shallow
depth. There are more than 180,000 abandoned wells, according to
the state Department of Environmental Protection, but it knows the
locations of only about 8,000.
Working closer to the surface in Pennsylvania means there‘s less
of a geological buffer to keep contaminants and methane from
migrating, and it increases the chance of coming across an
abandoned well, experts said.
The Environmental Defense Fund recommends against fracking any
closer than 1,000 feet from the bottoms of aquifers, said Scott
Anderson, a senior policy adviser with the Washington
organization. That would be about 2,000 feet in Pennsylvania.
“The mere fact that the risk is higher doesn‘t necessarily mean
fracking needs to be prohibited,” Anderson said. “But in an area
where the risk is higher, clearly, regulators need to require more
information about the geology, and they need to take a close look
at what the technical plan is for fracking.”
There‘s about a 1 percent chance that hydraulic fractures would
reach higher than 1,100 feet below ground in formations under
Pennsylvania, said Richard Davies, a geologist at Durham
University in England who released research last spring assessing
the history of industry fracks in the Marcellus shale. If one of
those fracks connects with an unplugged abandoned well or a
natural underground fracture, it could create a pathway to send
pollution to the surface or groundwater.
At shallow depths, however, there are fewer harmful naturally
occurring elements to come back up from drilling. Fracks shallower
than 2,000 feet are less likely to push straight up toward the
surface and groundwater, because of the nature of the geology,
Pennsylvania does not require drillers to identify abandoned wells
along the paths of their horizontal wells, which typically stretch
several thousand feet. The state does require them to pay if a
spill or accident happens from crossing an old well, and that
gives drillers incentive to look in advance, said Kevin Sunday, a
spokesman for the DEP.
“You‘d have to be very diligent in mapping out abandoned or
orphaned wells prior to drilling,” Sunday said. “The best that I
can say is that we‘ll always be moving our regulations to make
sure that whatever development happens, happens responsibly.”
Some of the state‘s oil and gas drilling regulations apply to
shallow fracking, but some do not.
Lawmakers exempted shallow drillers — even those using the same
techniques as deep shale drillers — from the distance buffers it
passed to protect homes and well water supplies from well sites.
But standards for well construction and drill site operations
apply to everyone.
“It seems like a bit of a loophole to me,” said Kelvin Gregory, a
civil and environmental engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon
University who studies microbes in the water that rises from deep
drilling. That loophole “should be plugged. We‘re doing all this
in a reactionary way.”
DEP wrote rules in the past two years that apply broadly. With
thousands of new large-scale wells, regulators drafted
requirements for extra layers of well casing through aquifers,
more fluid disclosures and pressure testing, among other updates.
Almost all of those rules apply to shallow wells, Sunday said.
Act 13 made a distinction between “conventional” and
“unconventional” wells, applying an impact fee and tougher
standards on anything defined as unconventional.
The law defines unconventional wells as any shale gas well
shallower than the Elk sandstone or equivalent, which is about
3,000 to 6,000 feet underground, according to the DEP. Any oil
well such as Penneco‘s, or any shallow fracked gas well would not
pay the impact fee or have to meet tougher provisions regarding
distances from water wells, buildings or waterways.
“The law was written, and nobody was really thinking that there‘d
be fracking in shallower wells,” Gregory said. “Once that comes
up, you‘re going to see some interest in the legislative level.”
Timothy Puko is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media. He can be
reached at 412-320-7991 or firstname.lastname@example.org.