Pennsylvania sits amidst a unique convergence of media interest, general speculation, land-rush speculation, new opportunity, energy-policy overload, changing economic situations, fear, misunderstanding, and competition as the Commonwealth looks to the development and perceived potential of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formation.
While this will be a long and well-debated energy development issue in Pennsylvania, it is also one that desperately needs a “time out” - a fact-check infusion of well known, tested, proven and understood technical, scientific and geological information – not hype or half-truths. This is essential to an informed discussion about the development of this energy source. There are important questions and an unfamiliar citizenry that may have heard part of the story, or may have heard part of it wrong, but who really desire one thing: credible information.
The reality is that that oil and natural gas development is nothing new to the Commonwealth. The first wells were drilled prior to the US Civil War and oil and natural gas production has taken place in Pennsylvania since that time. Natural Gas Storage, crucial to the optimization of the nation’s interstate pipeline system, was pioneered near Warren, Pennsylvania, and has expanded across the country. Petroleum Engineering, as a scientific-based discipline, was first developed at two of our great universities: The University of Pittsburgh and the Pennsylvania State University. It is a fact that Pennsylvania, in terms of education, research and implementation, was and continues to be an important player in providing oil and natural gas to our nation’s citizens.
It is also a fact that drilling a Marcellus well is a significant undertaking, but it is not a new undertaking. Some of the drilling technologies used in developing these wells have their roots in Pithole City, Pennsylvania (circa 1865) and Gulf Oil Company’s laboratory research during the 1950’s.
Hydraulic fracturing, a technique to stimulate a well’s productivity, was first observed by South Penn Oil Company at its operations near Clarendon, Pennsylvania, during World War II, and was perfected and patented by Standard of Indiana during the late 1940’s. This stimulation technique has been used extensively in Pennsylvania since the 1950’s and without question, its implementation has made oil and gas operations throughout North American more cost effective. In fact, without it, there would be little or no on-shore oil and gas operations.
The process for producing natural gas from shale formations like the Marcellus has been developed, tested and refined in other shale formations throughout the country and offers to Pennsylvania an equally large economic development opportunity. The natural gas produced from these shales is viewed to be the bridge fuel for the next several decades and is recognized to be the cleanest-burning fossil fuel. No extreme leaps in technology are necessary for its use as a fuel to augment electricity generation, to power transportation fleets and for use as raw material for the production of non-ferrous materials such as plastics.
Page 2 of 3 - Most issues raised about drilling Marcellus wells are of little consequence, given that they are managed by regulations, well permits and best management practices. And most are temporary, going away after a well is drilled, fractured and completed. Examples: erosion and sedimentation controls, the maintenance, repair and improvement of roads, and the completion of gathering lines and other infrastructure. All have been a part of drilling wells in Pennsylvania for years, all are managed by drilling companies and regulators, and all are essentially minor and short-term challenges addressed at each well.
Much discussion has also been focused on water: where does the 3-5 million gallons come from to complete fracture stimulation, what are the chemicals added to water during fracture stimulation and can it impact the environment, and how to treat “flowback” water returning to the surface following fracture stimulation? While the “3-5 million gallons of water” to complete fracture stimulation seems like a huge volume of this very important resource, this figure, as well as the estimated amount needed as the industry increases development, is not appreciable when compared to daily water consumption across Pennsylvania. Checks and balances are already in place in the Susquehanna and Delaware River Basins through interstate commissions that regulate the withdrawal of water, its timing with respect to seasonal variations in river level, and the locations of these withdrawals.
The state DEP is working closely with the industry to identify appropriate water sources in other parts of the state. Moreover, efforts are underway to reuse/recycle water where possible and to use water impacted by acid mine drainage. These efforts are a part of the work by industry and the DEP to manage overall water use. The point remains, however, that the amount of water used is very small when compared to the state’s total consumption.
The second water issue, hydraulic fracturing, has been misrepresented -- even demonized -- with many of the concerns having no basis in fact. What is hydraulic fracturing? In its simplest form, it is the use of a water and sand mixture to create a highly conductive zone where natural gas can more readily flow from the natural gas bearing formation to the wellbore. The additives used are in very small quantities and equally low concentrations. This mixture is introduced to the subject formation via steel pipe that is grouted in place with cement. The subject formation is nearly a mile below the earth’s surface and is separated from the surface by an equal distance of rock. The simple reality is that stimulation using this technique does not impact ground-water bearing zones.
The final step in water management is recognized as a challenging issue by the Commonwealth and the industry. There are techniques currently used to adequately treat the waste water and permit its disposal.
Flowback water is currently recovered at the surface and collected in DEP-approved plastic-lined pits. The pits are pumped dry and the wastewater collected is either recycled for future stimulation or trucked to DEP permitted wastewater treatment facilities, which are monitored to ensure appropriate amounts of flowback water are accepted for treatment. Existing wastewater treatment capacity can safely support current and planned drilling activity, along with recently announced plans to add new capacity at dedicated industrial wastewater facilities.
Page 3 of 3 - Long-term, the treatment of flowback water includes a number of interrelated efforts, spearheaded by a recently formed industry/DEP partnership to evaluate and develop promising technologies to treat the water and investigate additional options for recycling. These approaches will require an enormous investment of money and effort, and will be a contributor to the entire economic investment being made by the industry in Pennsylvania.
This potential to develop Pennsylvania’s energy portfolio and create huge economic benefits needs the type of discussion that is starting to take place in many parts of the state. It is not new. It is not unproven. It is not unsafe. As with any development involving the land, water, and resources beneath the ground, the number of stakeholders with an interest in the Marcellus Shale is as significant as the potential opportunities it can provide well into the future. A discussion of all these issues with the benefit of fact-based information can lead to a more productive dialogue.
Robert W. Watson PhD PE is Emeritus Associate Professor of Petroleum and Natural Gas Engineering and Environmental Systems Engineering at The Pennsylvania State University. Dr. Watson, a native of Carnegie, Pennsylvania, has worked extensively throughout Pennsylvania since 1965 as an engineer in the natural gas industry (13-years) and in academia at Penn State since 1978. He currently serves as chairman of the Technical Advisory Board to the Oil and Gas Management section of the Pennsylvania DEP. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.