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Fracking: Creating opportunity, controversy

February 27, 2013
By CASEY JUNKINS - For The Times Leader , Times Leader

WHEELING - Energy companies are willing to pay about $7 million to drill each Marcellus or Utica shale well in the local region to reach the natural gas and oil trapped beneath the ground.

Fracking, formally known as hydraulic fracturing, has been used in the U.S. for more than 50 years. A new direction in the process now employs horizontal drilling, which allows companies to extract much more natural gas and oil from each well than they previously did. This, industry advocates believe, affords them the chance to create thousands of new jobs and inject billions of dollars into the economy.

However, some still question the safety of fracking, as they fear the procedure may allow chemicals or methane to migrate into drinking water supplies.

Article Photos

Photo/Casey Junkins
Horizontal drilling and fracking have allowed natural gas companies and others to operate profitable wells in the Upper Ohio Valley.

Michael McCown, vice president Northeast for Gastar Exploration, said his company is working to put as many wells as possible on a single pad at its Marshall County operations. This allows for maximum efficiency in terms of gas production, he said.

Though the exact numbers will vary for each well, McCown said one particular well will go roughly 6,000 feet vertically before turning to go out 5,000 more feet horizontally. Slightly different equipment is used to drill the vertical and horizontal portions of the well.

Advances in drilling technology allow energy companies to drill deep vertical wells - but then turn those wells horizontally to continue drilling. This, McCown said, gives companies a much better chance of hitting the "sweet spot" in the formation because they can cover a larger area.

The advanced drilling technique, however, needs to be followed by fracking. Officials with Trans Energy Inc. said it takes them about 6 million gallons of water and 7 million pounds of sand to frack a typical Marshall County well. Other estimates list the total only to about 5 million gallons of water per well.

According to the latest information from Chesapeake, the company shows that roughly 1 percent of its fracking solution - specifically for the Marcellus Shale formation - consists of chemicals. This means that thousands of gallons of chemicals are being pumped into the ground at pressure as high as 10,000 pounds per square inch.

Not every frack job requires the same solution of chemicals, so not all substances will be used for every well. Some commonly used fracking chemicals include hydrochloric acid, which is used to help crack the rock; ethylene glycol, used to prevent scale deposits in the pipe; isopropanol, used to reduce surface tension; glutaraldehyde, used to eliminate bacteria; petroleum distillate, used to minimize friction; and many others.

In addition to these materials, some of the 85 fracking chemicals previously listed by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protections are xylene, toluene and tetramethylammonium chloride - chemicals that can lead, with prolonged exposure, to liver damage in humans and can even be fatal.

Despite the presence of some chemicals, industry leaders point out there is no proof that fracking contaminates groundwater. In fact, they note that no water source has ever proven to be contaminated by the hydraulic fracturing process.

This concern, however, led the state of New York to not allow drilling until more study is done. The state is expected soon to release its findings, at which time Gov. Andrew Cuomo will make a decision if drilling can commence.



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