NATURAL GAS EXTRACTION FROM THE MARCELLUS SHALE
Efficiently extracting natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formation requires both vertical and horizontal drilling, combined with a process known as ‘hydraulic fracturing.’ After the well is drilled, cased and cemented to protect groundwater and the escape of natural gas and other fluids, drillers pump large amounts of water mixed with sand and other fluids into the shale formation under high pressure to fracture the shale around the well, which allows the natural gas to flow freely to the wellbore. The amount of water typically required for hydraulic fracturing ranges from about one million gallons for a vertical well to approximately five million gallons for a vertical well with a horizontal lateral segment. There can be several horizontal laterals from a vertical wellbore. Once the hydraulic fracturing process is completed, the used water, often referred to as “flowback” must be reused in the next well or sent to an approved treatment facility.
LANDOWNERS AND MARCELLUS SHALE LEASING
In order to access Marcellus Shale natural gas, drilling companies must enter into a lease with landowners. A mineral lease is a private contractual agreement between the owner of a mineral tract (the lessor) who grants the right to develop deposits of the mineral to a producer (the lessee). Oil and gas mineral rights can be sold or leased separately to different parties. Usually a lessee will insist on the right to sell or reassign a mineral lease to another party. Because a mineral lease gives the lessee a property interest in the mineral, leases should be recorded at the Recorder of Deeds office in the county where the leased tract is located. A lease is usually secured by annual rental payments or a royalty on production paid to the lessor. Lease payments, royalty amounts; well, road and pipeline locations; protections for crops, livestock, buildings, personal property, and the expiration date of the lease can be negotiated. The commonwealth is not involved in regulating/negating lease agreements between mineral property owners and producers, and does not audit payments, read or calibrate meters or tanks, or otherwise get involved in lease matters.
If approached by a drilling company about leasing mineral rights on your property, it is recommended that you consult an attorney who is familiar with oil and gas law before signing any documents. Consider contacting the local bar association for assistance in finding an attorney in your area, if necessary. The Penn State University Cooperative Extension conducts gas leasing workshops for landowners. A schedule of upcoming workshops and other leasing information can be found at http://extension.psu.edu/naturalgas or by contacting your local extension office.
REGULATION OF MARCELLUS SHALE DRILLING
More than 350,000 oil and gas wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania since the first commercial oil well was developed in 1859 by Colonel Drake in Titusville. Oil and gas exploration is regulated under the state’s oil and gas laws (Oil and Gas Act, Coal and Gas Resource Coordination Act, and Oil and Gas Conservation Law), and the environmental protection laws that include the Clean Streams Law, the Dam Safety and Encroachments Act, the Solid Waste Management Act, and the Water Resources Planning Act
The Facts on Fracturing
The history of fracturing technology’s safe use in America extends all the way back to the Truman administration, with more than 1.2 million wells completed via the process since 1947. But only recently has the term “hydraulic fracturing” entered the public’s vocabulary, a function of the enormous opportunities that the application of fracturing and horizontal drilling are making possible all around the country through the development of abundant resources from shale.
It’s not a “drilling technique,” for starters. It’s a technology that’s used to enhance the flow of energy from a well once the drilling is done and the rig and derrick are removed from the scene. On average, it’s a process that takes about three to five days to complete start to finish. Once the fracturing operation is done, the well is considered “completed,” and, once the flowback is collected, is now ready to produce oil and/or natural gas for years, even decades, to come.
- EPA: Background information on hydraulic fracturing
- AXPC: Real facts behind fracture stimulation technology (2010)
- IPAA: “Three E’s” fracturing fact sheet (2009)
So it’s only used for oil and natural gas, right?
Actually, no. Over the past 60 years, hydraulic fracturing has been used for a wide variety of purposes, from stimulating the flow of water from water wells, to bringing geothermal wells into commercial viability. It’s even been called on by EPA to serve as a remediation tool for cleaning up Superfund sites – bet you didn’t know that one.
- EPA: A Citizens Guide to Superfund Cleanup and Hydraulic Fracturing (2001)
- MIT: The Future of Geothermal Energy (2006)
How does the process work in an oil/gas context?
After the well is drilled and multiple layers of casing and cement are installed, the drilling crew is replaced by a fracturing crew, which then gets to work on preparing the water-based solution for delivery to the formation. Water is far and away the most important aspect of a successful fracturing operation, as it not only creates the tiny fissures in the deep shale rock that liberate the natural gas, but also acts as a carrier and delivery mechanism for the sand, which helps keep those newly created fissures open so that resources can be collected.
Of course, water alone can’t create those tiny fractures in the rock – you need to apply some pressure as well. At a typical fracturing operation, dozens of “pump trucks” will be called in to help deliver the pressurized water down the wellbore. The solution itself is made up almost entirely of water and sand, 99.5 percent on average. The small percentage of materials that remain are additives that control the growth of bacteria in the wellbore (which, left unchecked, can corrode the pipes). Other additives alter the surface tension of the water so that it can be easily sent down the hole at the start, and then brought back up again when the fracturing operation is complete.
- Dept. of Energy: Modern Shale Gas Development in the U.S. – A Primer (2009)
- Video: 3-D rendering of the fracturing process (CHK, 2011)
Isn’t the composition of fracturing fluids a secret?
No, it’s not. As mentioned, greater than 99 percent of the fluid is composed of water and sand, and the small fraction of what remains includes many common industrial and even household materials that millions of American consumers use every day. By both weight and volume, the most prominent of these materials is a substance known as “guar.” Sounds scary, right? It’s actually an emulsifying agent more typically found in ice cream. In fact, the ice cream industry hasn’t been too pleased with us recently, since, thanks to shale, we’ve been using a good bit of the stuff as of late (though the guar bean growers don’t seem to mind).
The truth is, there isn’t a single “hazardous” additive used in the fracturing process that’s hidden from public view. On the federal level, operators are bound by requirements of the Community Right-to-Know Act (passed in 1986), which mandate that detailed product information sheets be drawn up, updated, and made immediately available to first-response and emergency personnel in case of an accident on-site. More recently, an effort led by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Ground Water Protection Council (GWPC) culminated in the creation of FracFocus.org – a searchable, nationwide database with specific well-by-well information on the additives used in the fracturing process. States themselves have also upped the ante, with no fewer than a dozen updating their regulations over the past 12 months to promote additional disclosure.
So what’s with all the controversy over “trade secrets”?
In rare cases, a company may ask that a certain “constituent” contained within a larger “additive” set be protected, though even then under law that information must be released to response and medical personnel in case of an emergency. Even without an emergency, companies still disclose the general name of the constituent in question, its common industrial uses, and even the volumes at which it is being deployed. Indeed, the vast majority of these are considered “non-hazardous” by EPA – quite the contrast from what you’ve read in the papers.
- GWPC: Nationwide, searchable, well-by-well chemical disclosure database
- Halliburton: Regional breakdown of both the additives and constituents used in fracturing solutions
- Range Resources: Completion reports (with detailed fluid disclosure) for more than 120 individual wells
The following websites offer additional information regarding the Marcellus Shale.
The Keystone Energy Forum is a group of concerned citizens and partners committed to improving the public’s understanding of, and support for, the many opportunities presented by the Marcellus Shale natural gas reserves here in Pennsylvania.
Our goal is to educate fellow Pennsylvanians to ensure our elected officials are creating sound policies which promote a strong economy and energy security.
American Petroleum Institute
Information on natural gas, hydraulic fracturing, jobs in the industry, economic impacts, etc.
Marcellus Shale Coalition
Information on the Marcellus Shale formation, the natural gas extraction process, opportunities, jobs, and more.
Marcellus Shale Jobs
Search for job opportunities in the Marcellus Shale industry.
Nemacolin Energy Institute
The Mission of the Nemacolin Energy Institute is to help people understand the facts about alternative energy sources including the important role natural gas from Marcellus Shale can play in moving America to energy independence.
Observer Reporter-Gas Drilling/Marcellus Shale News
News articles involving the Marcellus Shale from the Observer Reporter Newspaper website.
PA Gas Directory
Website dedicated to bringing together gas workers and Pennsylvania businesses.
Penn State Cooperative Extension
The Penn State Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research
Infomation regarding the Marcellus Shale from the Pennsylvania State University.
Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection
Marcellus Shale FAQ’s, fact sheets, and many educational links.
The American Entrepreneur Radio
Radio show series discussing the Marcellus Shale.