September 27, 2011

How fracking works: Fears are based on ignorance

Posted in: Published — by m2admin at 10:47 am

THE NORTHERN TIER, PA. The people trying to keep “fracking” illegal in New York rely on our ignorance about the safety and environmental impact of this drilling technology. So I went over the border to Pennsylvania for a hands-on education on the subject.

A gas-drilling site in the Endless Mountains is nothing like the plains of smoking derricks you see in photos of Texas oil fields; here, many sites are hidden away at the end of long access roads.

The rig itself is impressive — a 120-foot-high steel structure of platforms surrounding a huge rotary drill. An earthen berm encloses the football field-size site.

Get set: Cousins Brandon and Corey Mesko, ready to handle steel drilling pipe on a rig near Towanda, Pa.

But most of that is temporary: Finished sites, once the rigs pull out and the soil is reclaimed, usually consist of a fenced area the size of a large living room, with several small pipes protruding about three feet from the ground with two small water tanks. They’re easy to overlook among the farm equipment and pasture of the countryside.

In hardhat, safety glasses and work boots, I shadowed the men on the frontline for Chesapeake Energy. “Drilling is an art,” smiled foreman Josh Bradford, 37, a fourth-generation Louisiana oil-and-gas man. But it’s also science and engineering: The computer screen in his office trailer detailed the precise path carved by the huge rotary drill a few hundred feet away.

This technology lets engineers monitor the process as drills run straight down nearly a mile before making a gradual bend to run horizontal about the same distance. This “precision horizontal drilling” is the new technique that’s made it practical to exploit the Marcellus Shale (“fracking” has actually been done in America for decades).

Bradford’s job is to ensure that his crew, who’ve now worked together for nearly two years, adhere to strict safety protocols for the protection of each man and the environment. They put in two wells, 15 feet apart, at the surface. Each took 28 days to drill (which is the norm). Regulatory agents inspect every phase of drilling and construction of the many layers of steel casing and cement, which separate the production well from the earth.

Critics often harp on the supposed dangers of contaminating water supplies. But the key phase of drilling through the water table involves only air or water or clay; afterward, many layers of steel casing and cement are installed to protect the bore — making it physically impossible for the drilling or fracking process to affect any drinking water.

Once drilling is complete, the rig moves out and the “well-completion” crew arrives to “frack,” “flow-back” and cap the well.

The point of fracking is to fracture a shale formation so that gas or oil that was trapped inside can flow to a wellbore.

A frack site resembles a neat and orderly truck show. One truck holds a large reel of coiled steel tubing, which is snaked into the well. A “blender” truck mixes the water, sand and any additives needed to aid the fracturing process. Huge pumps push the mixture at high pressure through the steel “hose” into the well.

In the data-monitoring van with his team of consultants, petroleum engineer Nick Pottmeyer explained fracking. The team slides a device known as a “perforating gun” into the horizontal portion of the well, then uses it to set off small charges that punch pinholes in the horizontal steel production casing.

Then, they unclog the holes with an infusion of water and a diluted acid to remove any debris. The acid dissipates as the shale neutralizes it, over a mile underground.

Huge pumps drive water mixed with silica sand down into the horizontal leg of the casing — forcing the sand and water through the tiny holes to make hairline cracks in the shale. The microscopic grains of sand “prop” open the cracks, to allow the gas into the well and to keep the cracks from closing.

The team then recaptures the frack fluid for reuse in the next job. In its Pennsylvania operations, Chesapeake is recycling 100 percent of its wastewater, including frack water. This reduces the demand for fresh water and eliminates the need for treatment and discharge.

Once fracked, the well is “pumped back” for several days until enough water is removed and gas is flowing. The well is then capped until pipelines are built to connect to larger transmission lines.

Pottmeyer summed up the feelings of his fracking crew: “This country has a wonderful opportunity right now . . . We are in a terrible economic situation; we need to produce more and quit importing our energy.” These men are moving their families to New York, hoping that the state will soon allow drilling in the Southern Tier’s Marcellus Shale and in the Utica Shale of central New York.

They’re also bringing with them a work ethic, billions of dollars in local investment and jobs with salaries averaging $70,000 a year. Will New Yorkers let ignorant fears prompt us to spurn this cornucopia?

Karen Bulich Moreau, a lawyer, heads the Foundation for Land and Liberty (

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