The amazing shale plays in the United States, and increasingly, the rest of the world are not new. As drillers, we have known about the Marcellus, the Braken and the Barnett Shales, as well as others, for many years. To most of us, they were a nuisance. We knew that gas was there, but they never made enough volume to be productive; however, they sure did kick if not treated with respect. The productive zones usually were below them, so it was just one more thing to deal with on the way to T.D. American ingenuity being what it is, and the desire to make a profit led to very sophisticated directional drilling technologies that allow us to commercially produce these formations in a profitable way. Instead of drilling through a vertical shale section of only 200 feet or 300 feet thick, we now can drill horizontally through thousands of feet of productive formation. A little bit of gas from a very long section turned out to be a whole lot of gas.
At the time, the biggest problem was that these wells didn’t last very long.
They made a fair amount of gas for a little while and depleted quickly. Once
again, enter American ingenuity. Hydraulic fracturing has been around for many
years, and is a safe, proven technology. But it wasn’t commonly applied to
shales, and never previously to horizontal wells. A number of companies, such
as Halliburton, spent a lot of money and research time figuring out how to do
it. Suddenly the energy reserves of the world got bigger – a lot
One of the vagaries of nature is that petroleum deposits are not always in the
most convenient places. Offshore, arctic conditions, jungles, Siberia, the Falkland Islands and other inhospitable places test
drillers’ ingenuity in dealing with problems. On the plus side, the Marcellus
Shale is located near our northeastern markets, making transport much more
convenient. The minuses of the Marcellus are tight locations, limited
infrastructure and high population density. Those of us who grew up in the
“patch” pretty well know what to expect when a field is developed in our
neighborhood. We learned that heavy trucks run the roads pretty much night and
day, and they tear up the roads, too. The plus is that there usually is enough
money floating around to build some good roads and bridges. Some large
landowners get very well off, leasing their land, and not having to do a lick
of work. Quite a few young men get good jobs. One aspect of all this activity
that gets the fussier set in a tizzy is that the town, its cafes and saloons
now are full of people with less-than-perfect table manners. But they spend
money and generally tip well.
In the old days, when drillers made a mess, they usually cleaned it up pretty
well – or paid everybody to look the other way. With improvements in
technology, drillers are using ever-more innovative solutions. For instance:
Instead of using increasingly scarce drinking water for frac jobs, at least one
company is using waste water from depleted coal mines for frac water. Not only
does this save drinking water, it also reduces the natural run-off of the water
into the creeks and rivers, making their quality better. In this case, the
water quality would be worse if the drillers didn’t frac.
Opposition to progress is led by the environmental crowd, NIMBYs, the Flat
Earth Society and various other Luddites. They almost always are interviewed by
a young reporter who doesn’t even know which end of the derrick goes up in the
air, let alone the associated terminology, but is breathless with desire to
expose the “evil corporations.”
I watched an interview the other night on what was once a pretty big cable
network until its owner went to buffalo-ranching in Montana. The interviewer asked the
landowner when they dug his well. This I would have paid to see:
Roughnecks with shovels, digging like badgers towards black gold. His
answer, “A while back.” “Then what happened?” “They fracked it, and
my well went bad!”
OK, so far, so good. Shallow frac jobs, on very rare occasions, have been
known to cause some disruption. Then he went on to explain how he’s been
drinking out of this well for 50 years, and as soon as they started moving in
the rig, his water quality went south. I wonder how long he figures a well
should last. Millennia? I also wonder from whom he learned his science –
Al Gore or Michael Moore?
Although the good citizens of the Marcellus may not have seen it before, there
are a lot of wells that make gas of one kind or another. A fair number of water
wells in Indiana
make gas; lots of wells make hydrogen sulfide. Some wells in France make
CO2. The point: Gas in water is very easy to deal with; just get an aerator.
They are simple, cheap, and have proven track records.
Instead of jumping up on a table, screeching like Aunt Maude who just saw a
rat, and demanding the shutdown of the entire industry, a more sensible
approach would be to ask the drillers to fix the problem. They will be glad to,
within reason. And learn some science just before you get your 15 minutes of
fame. Oh, yeah: Reporters, you might peruse a glossary of drilling terms before
you interview the victims. Progress can be made with a harmonious outcome for
all if we avoid panic mode.