Want to tour a fracking site? Penn Township may get the chance
More than 10,000 hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — wells are spread across Western Pennsylvania and the state, at sites often ringed by fences and sound walls, off limits to nearly all but industry people.
Huntley & Huntley Energy Exploration has decided to pull back the curtain at a well pad in Penn Township near its border with Murrysville.
Its representatives have been taking local government and media members to the site to explain what goes on behind its 16-foot sound walls, and they say they plan to invite the public to visit, too.
No one can simply wander onto the site, which is accessed primarily via the Valley Landfill on Pleasant Valley Road. Vehicles must pass three security checkpoints before reaching the well pad.
“As we go forward, we'll be opening up tours to the general public as well, as much as our operations will permit it,” said Jen Hoffman, Huntley's vice president of regulatory and environmental health and safety.
Prior to a Jan. 18 media tour, Huntley hosted officials from Plum, Murrysville and Penn Township at the site. All three communities are in some stage of accommodating fracking.
Hoffman's consideration of tours open to the public is a rare offer. While many energy companies offer media tours, the Tribune-Review was unable to find any instance of a company providing that opportunity to the general public.
Hoffman said Huntley officials recognize that residents have questions about what happens on a well pad, “and the best way to share that information is to show our neighbors what takes place on a rig or construction location firsthand.
“We will conduct rig visits and operation tours for officials, residents, college classes and others with an interest in learning about natural gas development, as time and operations allow,” she said.
Neighbors weigh in
Nearby property owners have mixed opinions about the well pad.
Tricia Slifkey lives on Redoak Drive, one of two neighborhoods near the Poseidon well.
“We didn't move here to be this close to heavy industry,” said Slifkey, who wrote to township commissioners in opposition to the township's overlay district, the area where fracking wells are permitted.
“We need to develop energy,” said Karen Hackman, another resident along Redoak Drive. “But I am concerned about pollution.”
Neither the Slifkey nor Hackman families has a lease with Huntley.
As for the future, Hackman's husband, Bob, has a wait-and-see attitude.
“Long-term, as far as the effects, it's too soon to tell,” he said.
For Slifkey, that is reason enough for township officials to err on the side of caution when considering residents' safety.
“I believe the township hasn't done enough to protect residents,” she said.
Slifkey said she would “absolutely” be interested in touring the site.
“I want to get a better understanding of the actual workings of the well pad and what goes on firsthand,” she said. “I'd also like some exposure to company officials to answer questions and gather some information.”
What it's like inside
When drilling manager Anthony Miller wakes up at 2 a.m. to get ready for work, he first checks his cellphone, which not only shows who is at the site but can access readings on just about everything happening underground.
“It's feeding me everything from torque to depth,” Miller said. “Everything is recorded and monitored.”
The Poseidon well pad is in its infancy: Miller and the roughly dozen people working there are “coring” — drilling for a 200-foot section of rock thousands of feet below the surface. The core sample will be analyzed by Huntley's on-site geologist, Tim Vance, as well as a laboratory in Houston, Texas.
“They'll do frack modeling on it to see how a well placed at any level will affect things,” Vance said.
The full core analysis will take four to six months, and that data will be extrapolated to help give a sense of the surrounding area.
“You do one, maybe two cores and you get the basic geological information,” Vance said. “You look for natural fracturing and other things that could affect well development.”
A bustling work site
The drilling rig itself dominates the well pad, rising about 150 feet into the air as a worker, anchored by a counterweight, glides toward the top with little effort.
Trucks and trailers owned by a variety of contractors parked throughout the site are just a few examples of how drilling activity has stimulated some sectors of the local economy.
“We have a lot of consultants who are local to the Pittsburgh area,” Hoffman said. Civil & Environmental Consultants of Robinson Township works on local permitting and road bonding. Lindy Paving, with offices throughout the Pittsburgh region, does paving consulting. Delmont-based Morris Knowles & Associates worked on permitting for the Poseidon well pad.
“Two larger ones are Waste Management (it operates the Valley Landfill), where a lot of our drill cuttings and waste will be going,” Hoffman said. “There's also RES Water in New Stanton, where a lot of our brine will be going to be recycled and reused. ... They've taken technology and really pushed it forward to help water recycling efforts.”
The rig on the Poseidon well pad is run by electricity from two Caterpillar engines.
“It's much quieter than rigs powered by a line of diesel engines,” Miller said.
During the Jan. 18 media tour, the loudest noise was a “shaker” table on the drill rig, which separates mud from drilling waste, but it was by no means deafening. Miller said air compressors typically are the loudest feature of a drilling operation.
The average well takes about three weeks to drill, Miller said. Once that's completed, his goal is to have everything “broken down, moved off and onto the next well pad, which should happen in about five or six days with a good, experienced crew.”
What is left is a comparatively small amount of permanent equipment, including two stock tanks bordered by a small wall specifically built to contain and isolate any spilled material.
Other permanent gas industry projects, such as Sunoco's proposed Mariner East 2 Pipeline, are largely unseen since they are underground.
Where the gas goes
Natural gas collected from the Poseidon wells will go into a Peoples Natural Gas pipeline and head west toward Pittsburgh-area customers, Miller said.
Between 2008 and 2015, Peoples Gas customers benefited from a 73 percent reduction in the price of natural gas, a trend that continues across the state's providers, whose rates have all dropped at least 59 percent in that timeframe, according to the state's Public Utility Commission.
“There have been some increases the past few years due to increased demand,” Hoffman said. “But natural gas is still relatively cheap compared to other fuel sources.”