Fracking in Marcellus turns 10

| Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014, 11:51 p.m.

It doesn't take a petroleum engineer to see how far fracking has come since its first successful use on a Marcellus shale well 10 years ago.

Bird's-eye view photos of Range Resources Corp.'s work sites at the Renz well it completed in Washington County in 2004 and a more recent well illustrate a decade of improving environmental safeguards and production techniques.

The earlier view shows mounds of dirt where Fort Worth-based Range, which at the time was focused on exploring the shale's potential, cut into a Mt. Pleasant hillside with few erosion or spill-prevention safeguards in place.

“We just scratched the surface,” said Dennis Degner, vice president of Southern Marcellus operations at the company's office in Cecil.

The modern frack job takes place on a stone-covered well pad, lined and buffered to control spills and reduce disturbances, with tanks and equipment already in place to handle water, sand and eventual gas production.

“There's really a complete paradigm shift in environmental stewardship,” Degner said.

The improvements were driven by the companies themselves, seeking safer and more efficient techniques, as well as pressure from environmental groups and regulators. In some cases, such as spill controls, the industry's best practices became models for regulations, said Scott Perry, deputy secretary for oil and gas management at the state Department of Environmental Protection.

“As some drillers say, if you want to innovate, you have to operate,” Perry said, noting that many containment technologies mandated today did not exist until energy companies developed them in the field.

Hydraulic fracturing still requires pumping millions of gallons of water and tons of sand into the well at very high pressure. The 2004 photo shows several dozen 22,000-gallon water tanks that Range trucked to the site and dump trucks full of sand. Today, tankers deliver sand to mobile silos equipped with digital controls and dust reduction. Range and others bring much of the water to sites through pipes that fill tanks.

“The water line has been a huge advantage for us. It allows us to transfer water over several miles to that location,” Degner said.

In the 2004 photo, engineers controlling the work gathered around vans near the well. Today, the “frack van” is a trailer designed to remotely control all activities.

The site includes the well's permanent tanks and equipment, which workers built during drilling activities to shorten the construction time. It is also surrounded by buffers and terraced fields to control erosion or sediment movement.

“I'll put an oil and gas site up to any other construction site,” Perry said, noting the increased focus on such controls.

The industry and elected officials on Wednesday will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Renz well and Marcellus drilling during a gala in Cecil hosted by the Washington County Chamber of Commerce. Renz is no longer producing gas.

Perry predicts additional changes in the next 10 years, especially surrounding water management. Companies have struggled while dealing with wastewater, including Range and Downtown-based EQT Corp., both of which the DEP recently fined more than $4 million each for leaks from large water impoundments.

Using water lines and recycling wastewater for use in other wells has cut down on truck traffic, but challenges remain.

“Even with recycling, they still have some waste material that they can't recycle, that requires disposal,” said John Walliser, vice president of legal and government affairs at the Pennsylvania Environmental Council.

Federal rules taking effect next year will reduce the number of diesel engines running frack sites, which should further cut air emissions. Perry said companies are looking for alternatives to water in the fracturing process.

“We'll see more innovation,” Perry said.

David Conti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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