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Natural gas industry buoyed by advancing technology

| Saturday, March 1, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

From the office computer to the drill site, to the wells that can stretch more than three miles underground, nearly everything in Pennsylvania's natural gas industry is different from just a few years ago.

Drill holes are longer and smoother. Drilling tools are packed with computer sensors that adjust on the fly. Rock holding the gas gets cracked hundreds of times every few feet. Sand silos, 60 feet high, double as light towers at sites where rigs move in and out, around the clock, faster than before.

Even in the offices of gas company executives working the shale boom, specialty software coordinates the rapid-fire scheduling.

“We didn't have any of that even 10 years ago,” said Jeff Boggs, vice president of drilling at Consol Energy Inc. in Cecil. “So the advancement, just from the Marcellus ... would be like going from the industrial age to the computer age.”

Drilling companies working in Appalachia report such advancements as they perfect the science of cracking shale. Technology brought gushing wells and newfound efficiency, helping drillers make the most of the gas-rich Marcellus shale formation and pushing Pennsylvania up the charts of the country's leading producers.

Of the state's 28 Marcellus wells that averaged more than 20 million cubic feet per day of production in their first weeks, half were brought online in the last six months of 2013, the state said in data released in February.

Rigs working here outpace those nationwide, each expected to produce nearly 6,500 cubic feet of gas per day in March — a 30 percent increase from last March, according to the Department of Energy.

They have the benefit of working in one of the country's richest formations that offers a fairly simple formula, said Diana Oswald, a production analyst at Colorado-based Bentek Energy. As drillers figure out how to drill longer wells — commonly 6,000 to 7,000 feet now — and to fracture, or frack, the rock sideways more, they produce more, she said.

“I think you can attribute (production) more to the shale formation than the technological advancements,” she said, adding that they go hand in hand. “Two years ago they were just testing and figuring out stuff. Now they've proven certain technologies that work.”

Soaring production

Buoyed by success in the Marcellus, Pennsylvania has risen among the country's natural gas producers. It produced about 3 trillion cubic feet of gas in 2013, according to state production reports, surpassing Louisiana and putting Pennsylvania about on par with Alaska as the second-largest producer, federal data show.

The state's most recent production report showed 1.7 trillion cubic feet of gas captured from July through December, a six-month record during the shale boom and 47 percent increase from the same period a year ago.

As producers drill, they learn about the land, confirming increasingly larger gas reserves. Consol, Range Resources Inc., EQT Corp. and Rex Energy Corp., some of the most active Marcellus drillers in Western Pennsylvania, all boosted reserve estimates by 26 percent to 44 percent in recent weeks.

Range, in its quarterly earnings statement on Tuesday, directly attributed improving expectations to technological advances, noting its efforts to lengthen wells and frack each more. Its newest wells in the Pittsburgh area produced an average of 14.5 million cubic feet per day, enough energy to supply the average home for nearly 160 years.

“It's kind of funny: (In) the rest of the country, if you had said you made a 1 or 2 million a day, well, that used to be something that people would be pretty proud of. That's almost considered a dry hole in the Marcellus,” Don Robinson, vice president of drilling at Range, said during an industry conference last fall. “That's just from the transformation in the last couple of years. We are getting better and better wells. It's nothing I could have anticipated in my career.”

The ‘Super Frac'

Part of the push is from investors who reward discipline and cost control. Prices are low — about half of what they were when prices ballooned in the mid-2000s — but expenses are still high, more than $5 million for each well. When drilling companies put out annual spending plans above $1 billion, their stock prices have taken a hit, analysts have said.

So they've tried to cope by maximizing production from each well while spending less. That reach for efficiency is helped by advances in drilling technology and strategy.

Rigs are now on hydraulics, for example, to help “walk” from spot to spot and poke several holes in succession.

Underground, there are more tricks and techniques. At State College-based Rex, they call it the “Super Frac.” Each company has a system and brand for this work, but the general idea is to make more cracks at tighter intervals throughout the drill hole, or wellbore, said Sean Weissert, an engineer and senior director at Rex's Cranberry office.

They use explosive charges to help open pathways for gas, and had left up to 60-foot intervals and untapped space between each major fracture. The “Super Frac” and similar systems cut those intervals and add a complex network of smaller cracks. It all works like feeder roads into an interstate highway reaching more space to funnel more gas into the wellbore, Weissert said.

All that precision might go to waste if it weren't for advancements in steering systems that put the wellbores in the right spot, especially because sideways parts of wells have doubled and tripled in length. The layers of earth curve up and down, and automated systems help keep the bore within that ever-moving sweet spot.

Good stuff

Consol set a record last year by drilling a Marcellus well more than 18,500 feet — 8,000 feet down and 10,684 feet sideways, the company said.

The system Consol used has several different pads and computerized sensors attached to the drill bit so that it adjusts as it cuts rock to curve or straighten the path, according to the system's maker, Baker Hughes. These sensors and computer models can give drillers data in real time so they know exactly how rock is breaking and where sand is traveling into cracks to hold them open, Weissert said.

“Fracking has been around forever,” Weissert said. “But the difference now is that we actually know what's going on downhole.”

There are big questions about whether drillers can keep this going, said Michael E. Webber, deputy director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas. If gas drilling stays so successful that it keeps flooding markets with fuel, prices will drop, lessening the incentive to innovate, he said.

“There's nothing like good technology and high prices to make cool things happen,” Webber said after a speech Thursday at Washington & Jefferson College. “High prices really inspire clever thinking. ... You could say the easy gas has already been gotten, or you could say they're getting so much better they're only now getting to the good stuff. I'm not sure which one is true.”

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