(by Ben Wolfgang, WashingtonTimes.com) WASHINGTON, Pa. – Earlier this year, Phillip Whalen packed his bags, left his home in Louisiana and set up shop in western Pennsylvania.
The 15-year oil and gas industry veteran said work has dried up around the Gulf of Mexico, in part because of the fallout from the BP PLC oil spill last year. In what has become a kind of reverse national oil rush, Mr. Whalen said, his motivation for heading north to this small community 20 miles south of Pittsburgh was simple.
“I’m doing what I have to do to keep a roof over the head and pay the bills,” the grizzled family man said early one morning. He was dressed in a blue jumpsuit and was smoking a last cigarette outside his hotel before heading off to work.
His company, T3 Energy Services, sent him to Washington, the economic epicenter for exploiting what many think is the nation’s path away from dangerous dependence on foreign oil.
Big energy companies have set up shop here to tap the Marcellus Shale, a massive chunk of marine sedimentary rock stretching from the Finger Lakes region of New York as far south as Kentucky and Tennessee, holding within its subterranean grip vast deposits of natural gas.
Technology that essentially uses extreme water pressure to crack open the rock and liberate the natural gas within so that it can be pumped to waiting pipelines has given mining and energy companies access to the plentiful supply of shale oil and gas in recent years.
Proponents tout so-called “hydraulic fracturing” or “fracking” as the key to satisfying the nation’s booming energy appetite – using reliable, domestic sources – for a century or more. Critics warn that the procedure is dangerous, an untested technology that opens the way for mysterious chemicals to seep into water supplies, while leaving unsuspecting residents of small towns and rural hamlets vulnerable to environmental and economic disruption.
Either way, the industry has and continues to transform small western Pennsylvania outposts such as Washington, Hickory and Canonsburg from sleepy communities to boomtowns and has changed the national conversation about how we heat our homes and power our vehicles.
“All the sudden you’ve found yourself with an abundant source of energy … and, by the way, it’s made in America,” Tom Ridge, former Pennsylvania governor and homeland security secretary, said in an interview. Mr. Ridge now serves as an adviser to the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a fraternity of natural gas drilling outfits.
The new Houston
Analysts estimate that the shale contains between 168 trillion and 516 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, buried as deep as 9,000 feet below ground. Pennsylvania, where the nation’s first oil well was drilled in Titusville in 1859, has become the new Houston of the shale business and drilling has skyrocketed in recent years.
In 2007, drillers had 27 wells tapping the Marcellus Shale in the state. The number shot up to 161 in 2008 and to 785 in 2009. Last year, a record 1,445 wells were drilled – a 53-fold increase in four years. This year, 399 have been drilled as of March 31, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
The multibillion-dollar energy corporations drilling those wells have moved in as neighbors to residents in and around Washington, Bradford County and other parts of western and central Pennsylvania. Companies such as Fort Worth, Texas-based Range Resources, one of the largest players in the industry, are putting big checks in the pockets of landowners who lease their acreage for wells. The leases typically last as long as the well produces gas, often for 50 years. Many of the landowners are farmers, who get hefty royalty checks each month in exchange for allowing access to their land. …..
When the wells are completed and pumping gas around the clock, it’s back to business for the landowners. Cows graze just outside many of the sites. Farmers tend to the land and mow their pastures. The only difference is that they’re usually riding top-of-the-line tractors, financed with gas royalties.
For [farmers] and many others in these parts, Marcellus Shale is not just a household term; it has become a way of life. Rig operators head to local bars and restaurants after their 12-hour shifts. Hotel rooms are booked weeks or months in advance, with transient workers such as Mr. Whalen making them their temporary home away from home.
Many of those employees work two or three weeks straight without a day off. The grueling schedule allows them to fly home and see their wives and children during the off weeks.
Demystifying the process
One way companies are trying to win over the public is by talking more openly about the processes they use to extract natural gas and to deconstruct the mysteries of fracking.
Using the procedure, companies pump huge volumes of a water, sand and chemical mixture into the ground at tremendous pressure, shattering the rock that traps the gas. They work with subcontractors to set up water lines to and from the sites, a cheaper alternative to running thousands of tanker trucks back and forth to supply the millions of gallons needed for a single well.
Throughout the operation, layers of piping and concrete line the well, which is meant to keep the fracking fluid from contaminating vital water supplies.
The frack job, as insiders call it, is a round-the-clock operation, with 35 to 50 employees at the site day and night. Workers eat on site, with catered meals provided by their employer. They leave only to sleep.
At the heart of the entire operation is the frack van, filled with millions of dollars of technical equipment measuring pressure, depth and a multitude of other factors. Inside, Shawn Hodges and other employees keep an eye on everything.
“It’s a very small surface area [we’re drilling], but a lot of gas,” said Mr. Hodges, a completions-operations manager who has been in the industry for 25 years and has worked on more than 4,000 wells.
In the old days, drilling was purely vertical. While still profitable and effective, the vertical shafts could tap only a tiny potion of the field, requiring large numbers of rigs and huge swaths of land to exploit a find. With each rig, the risk of an accident increased.
Now, companies are able to incorporate horizontal drilling. After drilling the vertical well – typically about 6,500 feet down – operators can branch out horizontally, usually at a distance of about 3,000 feet but sometimes much farther. This allows companies to extract gas from a much larger area from a single well site, decreasing land needs and maximizing efficiency.
Range officials concede that the initial process is “noisy and dirty” but stress that it’s only temporary. A year after first putting the drill into the ground, land is nearly back to normal. [The] land…has been restored, with the exception of the well pad, the leftovers from the drilling process that pump gas from the ground and into pipelines.
From those pipelines, the gas heads to market and is sold to homes and businesses in Ohio, Kentucky and many other states. Marcellus Shale companies say they will have one advantage over other fracking centers because of lower transportation costs to the densely populated Northeast and mid-Atlantic markets.
Manning the pumps
To run a safe, effective operation, companies such as Range need competent employees. Increasingly, the talent is homegrown.
At the Western Area Career and Technology Center in Canonsburg, not far from Washington, director Joseph Iannetti has instituted programs geared toward the natural gas industry.
Like Mr. Whalen, some adult students come from across the country to learn the skills needed for jobs that pay, on average, about $75,000 a year.
“From my research, we’ll walk out of here and have a job,” said Pat Champ, a quiet, out-of-work carpenter from Wisconsin who left the Badger State to find work in the natural gas industry. He sat inside the small classroom with two other students. The class is expected to grow along with the process.
Mr. Champ’s optimism is not misplaced. Mr. Iannetti said companies recruit students before they finish the programs, which include a vocational technology offering for high school students and an adult course for Mr. Champ and others.
“When we first heard about this, we thought it was science fiction,” Mr. Iannetti said of the Marcellus Shale and the fracking process. “There’s excitement [in western Pennsylvania] again. This is not a flash-in-the-pan industry.”
He said his school has a 92 percent placement rate. Many graduates head to well sites, working for Range or one of its many competitors. But, Mr. Iannetti said, companies need more than well drillers.
There is high demand for electricians, welders, truck drivers, excavators and even accountants.
It isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s hard work, exactly the kind western Pennsylvanians are used to after the mighty rise and sudden fall of iron and steel operations, Mr. Iannetti said.
For the nation, it’s an opportunity to revolutionize energy policy. For workers, it means a good paycheck in an exciting field, accompanied by backbreaking work and weeks at a time away from home.
“It’s a rough lifestyle, staying away from your family,” Mr. Whalen said, growing angry when asked about those who demonize the industry and argue that it cares only about money.
“You just have to protect the environment. That’s my job,” he said.
Copyright 2011 The Washington Times, LLC. Reprinted from the Washington Times for educational purposes only. Visit the website at washingtontimes.com.
NOTE TO STUDENTS: This is a long article, but well worth reading. It is important to understand the sources of our energy, including costs, benefits, how these fuels affect the environment, etc. As you become voters, you need to understand the issues in order to make the best choices for those who will represent us in government. Also, it is worthwhile to learn about the impressive work being done by American companies.
1. Where is the Marcellus Shale?
2. a) What is the benefit of fracking, according to supporters?
b) Why are critics opposed to fracking?
3. Read the “Background” and watch the video under “Resources” below the questions. What do think about the defense to the accusation that fracking contaminates water supplies?
4. a) Less than a decade ago, natural gas prices in the U.S. were among the highest in the world. Why has the price of natural gas come down so far in the past five years? (see “HYDRAULIC FRACTURING” under “Background” below the questions)
b) How much natural gas is estimated to be in the shale (rock containing gas or oil)?
5. Why does fracking benefit landowners including farmers?
6. a) What types of employment opportunities does the fracking industry offer?
b) What is the average salary in this industry?
7. Are you encouraged or discouraged by this article? Explain your answer.
NATURAL GAS: (from instituteforenergyresearch.org/energy-overview/natural-gas)
- Natural gas is colorless, odorless fossil fuel gas that is prized for its cleanliness and its many uses – including energy.
- It is produced in much the same way as oil, and in fact is often produced in conjunction with oil.
- The most environmentally-friendly of the fossil fuels, natural gas provides 24% of our total energy supply and approximately 21% of the fuel used to generate electricity.
(read more at instituteforenergyresearch.org/2010/01/20/america-awash-in-natural-gas%E2%80%94as-long-as-hydraulic-fracturing-is-allowed)
HYDRAULIC FRACTURING (FRACKING): (from instituteforenergyresearch.org/2011/05/03/hydraulic-fracturing-is-it-safe)
- Less than a decade ago, natural gas prices in the U.S. were among the highest in the world.
- However, in the last five years, domestic natural gas reserves have grown 30% due to technological advances in the use of hydraulic fracturing, a drilling method that is coupled with directional drilling to access underground reservoirs of oil and gas.
- This technological breakthrough had an immediate impact on natural gas prices, causing them to plummet and remain low to the present time.
- Despite this important stride toward future U.S. energy security, hydraulic fracturing has come under attack.
- As the newest [focus] of fossil fuel foes, hydraulic fracturing was notably featured in the 2010 movie Gasland, which dramatized the allegation that hydraulic fracturing had been the cause of groundwater contamination.
- Understandably, these reports have caused much public consternation, and have prompted both regulators and legislators to contemplate whether hydraulic fracturing should be subject to additional federal regulation. But are they accurate?
- While the controversy over hydraulic fracturing is new, hydraulic fracturing itself is not. First used in 1947, hydraulic fracturing has been employed in more than a million wells to extract more than 7 billion barrels of oil and 600 trillion feet of natural gas from deep underground shale formations.
- Geologists have long known that shale rock formations contain large amounts of natural gas and oil, but the fossil fuel resources were trapped in layers of rock and could not easily be extracted.
- Two studies conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Ground Water Protection Council (GWPC) – the national association of state ground water and underground injection agencies whose mission is to promote the protection and conservation of ground water – found that there have been no confirmed incidents of groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing.
- This is particularly noteworthy in consideration of the fact that approximately one million wells have been hydraulically fractured in the United States.
- Furthermore, according to the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC) – the multi-state governmental agency representing states’ oil and gas interests – each IOGCC member state has confirmed that there has not been a case of groundwater contamination where hydraulic fracturing was attributed to be the cause. (read more at instituteforenergyresearch.org/2011/05/03/hydraulic-fracturing-is-it-safe)
Read about hydraulic fracturing at hydraulicfracturing.com/Process/Pages/information.aspx.
Read about the Marcells Shale at chk.com/Media/MarcellusMediaKits/Marcellus_Hydraulic_Fracturing_Fact_Sheet.pdf (NOTE: this is a PDF document)
What is hydraulic fracturing? Watch a video below:
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