Today the production company that started out with a handful of gas leases has become a gem in western Pennsylvania’s gas industry. 

Western Pennsylvania long has been a leader – with many firsts – in the energy industry. Oil in the United States was first discovered there, and the first commercial well was drilled in Titusville in 1859. Now coal is a major business in the region, too. Natural gas and coal-bed methane both have been in play here. But, according to many industry experts, the future of the gas industry in the region is the Marcellus gas play.

When Stan Berdell started his business, he didn’t think it would be drilling. Today the production company that started out with a handful of gas leases has become a gem in western Pennsylvania’s gas industry. E&L Drilling of Kittanning, Pa., averages 150 natural gas wells a year, and recently set a new known depth record for the Atlas Copco RD20 drill rig at 6,619 feet.

Jack Mann, field superintendent for E&L, says, “3,500-foot wells are standard for this area.” With the development of the Marcellus natural gas zone, drilling is expected to go deeper. In western Pennsylvania, the Marcellus zone is a 50-foot to 60-foot thick strata, going as deep as 8,000 feet. Berdell says the company is gearing up to develop this zone further, and has scheduled a well that will go to 6,800 feet.

When the vertical depth record was set at 6,619 feet, the drill string was all steel. Driller Chris McAninch boasts, “The rig gave me everything it had.” Since that well, the company purchased an additional aluminum drill rod string that will help it reach depths in excess of 7,000 feet.

Setting the record was fairly straightforward with only one worry for McAninch. “At 6,450 feet, the hole about swallowed me up,” he recalls. “I blew it out, the hammer smacked and it dropped. It was like an optical illusion the way the pipe settled in the hole. I put air to it for about 15 minutes, cleaning the hole, and then kept going. In total, according to the log book, the hammer spent 37 hours of drill time on the bottom.” Normally, each of E&L’s crews works five, 12-hour shifts a week. For this job, the company’s second crew was pulled off its rig, and with the two crews working around the clock, it took six days to finish the hole from rig-up to rig-down.

Wells in this area require 30 feet to 40 feet of conductor casing. E&L starts off with a 17-inch hole set with 133⁄8 inch casing. From there, they will continue 200 feet to 300 feet, or until they are at a minimum of 30 feet through any existing coal mine or coal zone, with a 12-inch bit setting 95⁄8-inch casing. The well continues with an 8-inch bit to about 2,000 feet, where 7-inch casing is cemented in place. The well is completed with a 6-inch bit and 4-inch production casing.

Mann has been around drills for more than 33 years. “This company knows family is important,” he says. His crews work five days a week, with one rig staying close to home, allowing that crew to get home nightly. “Normally, we can finish a 5,000-foot well from roll-on to roll-off in five days, with the average well in the area taking four days,” he explains.

To move to a new job takes eight loads and four crew members, plus the tool pusher. “We are up and going in an hour or two once we are onsite,” says Mann. The sites they have to drill on are not that large. Berdell recalls, “There was one job where you could reach out and touch the roof of the house from the doghouse.” The regulations require 200-foot distance from a dwelling, although a homeowner can give permission to drill closer.

Berdell believes in the personal touch with customers, landowners and employees. Keeping things small allows Berdell to get to each drill site about once a week and, as he put it, “shake hands with the guys and tell them ‘thank you.’”