Drillers explore 'groundbreaking' fracking technique
Traditional vertical drilling for gas and oil could lessen in favor of state-of-the-art horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing of rock layers, perhaps as shallow as 1,000 feet underground and not far from drinking water aquifers.
At least one Western Pennsylvania company is fracking rock about 3,000 feet down in Westmoreland County, slurping oil out of formations about half as deep as the heavily tapped, gas-rich Marcellus shale.
If the technique catches on — industry experts suggest shallow fracking is inevitable — it could be a boon to smaller drillers. It could reshape state law and increase concern about the safety of drinking water, experts say.
“What we're doing is unique. It is amazing. ... It is groundbreaking,” said Ben Wallace, chief operating officer at Penneco Oil Co. in Delmont. “Traditional well drilling doesn't work under (today's) price structure. It's done.”
The basic technology behind shallow fracking has been available for at least 20 years — coal mines use it to vent methane — but it's more affordable than before. Improved technology helped lower the cost, and the state's shale gas boom attracted dozens of drilling support companies to the region, providing a much larger available workforce for fracking.
Only a few companies are contemplating it, but the opportunity could be a lifeline for small, family-owned companies that have worked in Pennsylvania for generations, said Louis D. D'Amico, executive director of the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association.
Traditional drilling essentially halted in the state because of falling natural gas prices and increased competition from billion-dollar multinational companies in recent years, Wallace said.
That pushed Penneco to experiment, drilling the state's first horizontal fracked oil well from January to March 2011 under Lower Burrell. It worked so well that the company is spending about half of its $50 million drilling budget this year for nine more wells, Wallace said.
Oil wells, especially in Northwest Pennsylvania's historically oil-rich rock layers, could be the juiciest target for any company that follows Penneco's lead into shallow fracking. Shallow-fracked gas wells likely would follow, experts said.
If natural gas prices rise to the levels they hit in 2007 and 2008 — about $8 per million Btu, more than double today's price — that could push drillers to explore. It could inspire more companies to experiment with the technology in other resource-rich layers under Pennsylvania, said officials at Consol Energy Inc., which owns more than 10,000 conventional wells.
“The more readily available the tools are, and the more people know how to run them, the more affordable it is,” said Matthew Imrich, an engineering manager at Cecil-based Consol. “If the market is right, then you've got a lot of opportunities.”
Many environmental experts consider the process to be relatively safe, though expanded horizontal drilling heightens risks when it's done closer to aquifers.
One risk involves working near or under abandoned wells at shallow depth. There are more than 180,000 abandoned wells, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection, but it knows the locations of only about 8,000.
Working closer to the surface in Pennsylvania means there's less of a geological buffer to keep contaminants and methane from migrating, and it increases the chance of coming across an abandoned well, experts said.
The Environmental Defense Fund recommends against fracking any closer than 1,000 feet from the bottoms of aquifers, said Scott Anderson, a senior policy adviser with the Washington organization. That would be about 2,000 feet in Pennsylvania.
“The mere fact that the risk is higher doesn't necessarily mean fracking needs to be prohibited,” Anderson said. “But in an area where the risk is higher, clearly, regulators need to require more information about the geology, and they need to take a close look at what the technical plan is for fracking.”
There's about a 1 percent chance that hydraulic fractures would reach higher than 1,100 feet below ground in formations under Pennsylvania, said Richard Davies, a geologist at Durham University in England who released research last spring assessing the history of industry fracks in the Marcellus shale. If one of those fracks connects with an unplugged abandoned well or a natural underground fracture, it could create a pathway to send pollution to the surface or groundwater.
At shallow depths, however, there are fewer harmful naturally occurring elements to come back up from drilling. Fracks shallower than 2,000 feet are less likely to push straight up toward the surface and groundwater, because of the nature of the geology, experts said.
Pennsylvania does not require drillers to identify abandoned wells along the paths of their horizontal wells, which typically stretch several thousand feet. The state does require them to pay if a spill or accident happens from crossing an old well, and that gives drillers incentive to look in advance, said Kevin Sunday, a spokesman for the DEP.
“You'd have to be very diligent in mapping out abandoned or orphaned wells prior to drilling,” Sunday said. “The best that I can say is that we'll always be moving our regulations to make sure that whatever development happens, happens responsibly.”
Some of the state's oil and gas drilling regulations apply to shallow fracking, but some do not.
Lawmakers exempted shallow drillers — even those using the same techniques as deep shale drillers — from the distance buffers it passed to protect homes and well water supplies from well sites. But standards for well construction and drill site operations apply to everyone.
“It seems like a bit of a loophole to me,” said Kelvin Gregory, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University who studies microbes in the water that rises from deep drilling. That loophole “should be plugged. We're doing all this in a reactionary way.”
DEP wrote rules in the past two years that apply broadly. With thousands of new large-scale wells, regulators drafted requirements for extra layers of well casing through aquifers, more fluid disclosures and pressure testing, among other updates. Almost all of those rules apply to shallow wells, Sunday said.
Act 13 made a distinction between “conventional” and “unconventional” wells, applying an impact fee and tougher standards on anything defined as unconventional.
The law defines unconventional wells as any shale gas well deeper than the Elk sandstone or equivalent, which is about 3,000 to 6,000 feet underground, according to the DEP. Any oil well such as Penneco's, or any shallow fracked gas well would not pay the impact fee or have to meet tougher provisions regarding distances from water wells, buildings or waterways.
“The law was written, and nobody was really thinking that there'd be fracking in shallower wells,” Gregory said. “Once that comes up, you're going to see some interest in the legislative level.”
Timothy Puko is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or firstname.lastname@example.org.