‘Going Above and Beyond’

Gas company gives tour, talks about concerns

Morgantown Dominion Post
29 May 2011
By David Beard

Northeast Natural Energy began drilling the first of its two Marcellus gas wells at the Morgantown Industrial Park a week ago. Northeast invited The Dominion Post to the well pad to tour the site and talk about some of the issues and concerns associated with the project.

Because the pad is 3,000 feet upstream from Morgantown Utility Board’s (MUB) public water intake on the Monongahela River, many residents have expressed concerns about the possible effects on the water supply. Some opponents are holding regular rallies aimed at stopping the project.

“It’s important for everybody to understand that our company goes beyond what’s required,” Northeast President Michael John said. “We are a local company, but we’re also committed to being successful, and we understand that the only way we can be successful is to be good stewards of the environment — to do what we do the right way.”

MUB requested extra safety measures, and Northeast was happy to comply, John said. It so happens that most of the measures also fall within state regulations, or industry best practices, or both.

The area around the drill rig is covered by a 30 mil liner, and bermed to stop fluid spills from contacting the soil.

Outside the bermed area sits a backup, swimming pool-sized retention pond to catch runoff and any fluids the protected area might not contain.

A waist-high berm, also lined, surrounds the 4-acre pad.

Northeast is employing a “closed loop process” for its drilling and fracking. No wastes will be buried on site.

The drill cuttings will be dried, scooped into rollout boxes and trucked off site to an approved landfill in Westmoreland County, Pa., officials at the pad said. Fluids will be removed, placed in tanks and disposed of properly. Recovered frack fluid will be piped into containers and taken to a recycling plant for another frack job somewhere else.

“We’re going above and beyond the regulations to cooperate in a little greener fashion,” said Kevin Stiles, consulting drilling supervisor.

While oil-based mud is the most common type for drilling, Northeast will use a waterbased mud because of the proximity to the Mon River, Stiles. “It’s a greener fluid.”

Instead of oil, the mud will have a Xanthan polymer for viscosity and barite — barium sulfate — to add weight for pushing the drill and forcing the cuttings back up.

While the Legislature failed to pass any Marcellus regulations in it 2011 regular session, and acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has yet to schedule a special session, John said there already are “longstanding, comprehensive regulations in place. ... I try to encourage folks to become familiar with the regulations.”

While Northeast is Charleston based, Northeast Vice President for Regulatory Affairs Brett Loflin said he, John and Stiles all have strong ties to Morgantown. They were all educated at WVU’s engineering school. Loflin has a son at WVU, and the other two have daughters coming this fall.

The state Department of Environmental Protection issued the permits for the two wells — MIP 4H and 6H — in March. John said they put in the applications in February, after reviewing the geologic data for the site and talking with mineral and surface owners in the area. (Enrout Properties LLC, co-owned by Kevin Adrian, Glenn Adrian and William Bland, owns the surface and minerals at the site.)

“One of the things that really attracted us to this spot,” John said, “is we have quite a few hundred acres (of underground resource) here that can all be accessed from this one pad” without disturbing more surface area. The entire operation, including the freshwater pond, access roads and sediment controls, will disturb about 20 acres.

Another factor is proximity to Dominion Hope’s gas transmission pipeline — only 3,200 feet away at the edge of the park. Northeast will build a pipeline across the back of the park to connect.

If the two wells pan out, he said, Northeast plans to drill others on the pad.

Experts from various fields have told The Dominion Post that gas wells pose little threat to the water supply if the well bore is properly sealed.

The drilling process

Northeast began with a 17 1/2-inch hole down to about 500 feet — below the river and the aquifer and set in a 13 3/8-inch steel casing. A 12 1/4 hole came down to 1,600 feet — a depth reached by Thursday with a 9 5/8 inch diameter casing. Inside that will go a 5 1/2-inch production casing — to channel the gas up — down to the end of the horizontal well bore.

The vertical bore will go to 8,000 feet, where they’ll test the shale layer. They’ll pull the drill back up and cement the lower stretch, then begin the kickoff — the curve portion — at about 7,000 feet, curving down to about 7,700 feet. The horizontal bore will begin about 600 feet from the vertical bore and go about 4,000 feet.

A sheath of cement — specially mixed and lab analyzed — surrounds each casing. Each casing is pressure tested.

MUB asked that the two upper strings be tested in addition to the other strings that are routinely tested, and Northeast agreed.

For most of the vertical stretch, Northeast will drill with compressed air. It pulverizes the rock and pushes the cutting back up. Just above the “pay zone” — the shale layer — they’ll switch to mud. The weight of the mud and the bit — turned by a hydraulic motor — drills the hole and flows the cuttings back up.

The mud is also a conduit for tracking and steering the bit. “Mud pulse technology” carries signals up through the drilling fluid to computers on the surface. This data logging process measures the gas in place and formation properties.

The signals also aid “geosteering” through the horizontal bore — to stay in the most productive area.

On-site geologists also examine the cuttings under a microscope to make sure the rock contains what they expect and the drill is following the best path.

With crews working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the first bore will take about a month. Then they’ll skid the drill rig about 20 feet and begin the second bore. Underground, the two holes will be much farther apart, but run parallel.

The drilling workers on site include three five-man crews; a 24-hour, on-call rig manager called a tool pusher; a 24-hour on-site drilling manager sometimes called the company man; and various subcontractors.

Les Wilson Drilling Services is doing the drilling on a rig in operation for about 2 1/2 years. The drill is called a top drive. A diesel engine on the ground imparts hydraulic pressure to the actual top drive — about 12-15 feet tall and painted yellow-orange — that holds and turns the 32-foot lengths of connectable drill pipe. It has a hook load of 440,000 pounds and has drilled as far as 12,000 feet, vertically and horizontally.

When both holes are drilled — about two months — fracking will begin. Fresh water for the frack fluid will be pumped from the river or MUB source up to a fresh water impoundment yet to be dug. That will spare some truck traffic.

Fracking along the horizontal bores will be done in 12 stages, two to three a day for about four days. The entire fracking and well completion process will take about two weeks.

Stiles said residents should not expect to feel the fracking, because it is almost 8,000 feet underground. A number of frack pumps mounted on trucks will work simultaneously, and he expects it will be quieter that the drilling process. It may not be heard past the base of the pad.

Air quality concerns

Some residents have raised concerns about air pollution from the well site, especially since two schools sit about a mile away. Such concerns aren’t new. In Wetzel County, residents are asking the state Air Quality board (AQB) to regulate fumes from wells and beef up the rules for fumes from compressor stations. That effort has suffered a setback because the AQB ruled the compressors and wells aren’t contiguous or adjacent as determined by the federal Clean Air Act.

In Pennsylvania, DEP testing at certain production and well sites determined emissions don’t pose a health threat.

Asked about emissions, John said, “That’s our revenue stream. We go to a lot of trouble to get that gas to the surface, and when we get it to the surface we go to even more trouble to keep it in the pipe and get it into the market.

It’s not something we’re going to allow to just leak into the air.

“Part of why we do what we do,” he said, “is we believe in natural gas. Natural gas is abundant, it’s affordable, it’s domestic. But the most important thing is it’s clean burning. ... it’s all about maintaining control over the product.”