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Drilling industry gets into holiday spirit

| Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012, 7:42 p.m.

OIL CITY — The oil and gas industry is ramping up all around us, thanks to the prolific and profitable new drilling destinations that bear a pretty little name like Marcellus or the industrial sounding label of Utica.

The renewed interest in Pennsylvania's oil and gas patch brings with it a return to the lingo of the trade.

Roustabout (a manual laborer), black gold (crude oil), gusher (a successful well), mud (drilling fluids), pumpjack (oil well pumping ensemble), fishing (retrieving dropped tools down the borehole), kick down (drill a well), torpedo (nitro shot), yellow dog (a two-wicked oil lantern), fracking (drilling via high-pressure fluids) and many more terms weave in and out of the oil and gas jargon.

And, since it's the season, here's a holiday-related linguistic entry: Christmas tree.

“We have lots of 'em around here,” said longtime driller and producer Glenn Weaver of Franklin. “They are on the gas wells, mostly on the Medina (sandstone) wells. Everybody always called all the connections and fittings a ‘Christmas tree.' ”

In the oil and gas realm, a Christmas tree is equipment attached to the top of a gas well. It is a mishmash of control valves, pressure gauges, bolts, pipes, tubes and more. It is perched on casing and tubing linked to the well and stands about fix feet high.

The shape of the appendage, the most evident part of a producing gas well, resembles a tree.

The conglomeration of loops and valves intertwined among branch-like pipes creates a design wild with decorations.

Voila, a Christmas tree!

There is serious purpose to the abstract sculpture-like tree. It controls the flow of natural gas and fluids out of the well below. A key ingredient in its design is the ability to monitor and regulate how much gas comes out of the well.

The “tree” is expensive. Chinese manufacturers are selling assembled well-top trees for $10,000 to $50,000 each, depending on the gas well production.

There is a cheaper version. Industry enthusiasts can buy heavy steel desk ornament models in the shape of a “Christmas tree” for less than $100 each.

The top-of-the-well apparatus has varied in design since the natural gas industry began. Its latest transformation stems from the onslaught of the very deep Marcellus and Utica shale drilling.

“They look different on a deep well,” said Lou D'Amico, executive director of the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association. “There is different valving. Most of our shallow wells are threaded connections while the high pressure wells have flanges, bolts and O-rings. They just look heavier.”

“Regardless, they are still considered ‘Christmas trees.' And there will be more of them up that way. Not so much with the Marcellus in Northwestern Pennsylvania but the Utica. That will be the real target,” he said.

The “Christmas tree” sweep atop gas wells is meandering its way here

After a dramatic drilling hiatus 10 years ago, oil and gas production has swelled to new levels in Pennsylvania.

From January to Dec. 1 of this year, a total of 2,205 wells (including 1,263 unconventional or deep wells) have been drilled in the state.

While the region is heavily dotted with pumping jacks straddling shallow oil wells, the “Christmas tree” fixture doesn't grace those sites.

“We just have the jacks on them. There's really no way to do the tree thing,” Weaver said. “But, I do remember the lighted Christmas trees — real ones — that used to be put up at the (Pennzoil) refinery.”

Those lighted trees were fastened to certain tall infrastructure, including stacks and support pipeage, at the refinery at Rouseville during the holidays.

In addition, crews at gas well drilling pads would often reel up a small decorated Christmas tree to the top of a drilling rig to celebrate the holiday. Taken down after Christmas, the trees would be replaced by American flags if drilling continued through the summer.

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