A day on the rig

WILLS TWP. – To illustrate how nature and horizontal oil and natural gas drilling can coexist at a well pad in Guernsey County, David Hill points to the livestock.

“They don’t give a hoot about that drilling,” said Hill, vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, as he pulled into a gravel parking area next to the Detweiler Pad off Justice Road in Wills Township on Tuesday.

Hill’s company, Byesville-based David R. Hill Inc., holds the lease for the mineral rights on property belonging to JJ Detweiler Land and Cattle Company and is working with Colorado-based PDC Energy to drill wells and extract oil and natural gas from the Utica shale formation about 7,000 feet underground. He and representatives of PDC and the state oil and gas association led media members on a tour of the rig Tuesday.

Advances in technology have allowed companies to access minerals stored in deep-underground formations like the Utica and Marcellus shale via horizontal drilling. The long-used process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is then used to create breaks in the formations to reach the oil and natural gas within.

As the industry continues to build momentum in Ohio, some people see it as an economic boon while others are concerned about the environmental impact on drinking water and the land around the well sites. The fluid used to fracture the formations consists primarily of water, but also contains sand and various chemicals, and the contents are at times protected as trade secrets.

Proponents say the process, when done properly, poses no risk to water supplies. Hill said the industry is well-regulated in Ohio and producers are mindful of their impact on their surroundings.

“Drilling for oil and gas and protecting the environment are not mutually exclusive things,” he said.

Before and after

The Detweiler Pad is located on four to five acres of what used to be pasture land on property where horses, donkey, llamas and even camels are kept, and not far from the Pine Lakes Lodge bed and breakfast resort and conference center.

Currently, a drilling rig towers about 175 feet over the ground as two six-man teams work around the clock in 12-hour shifts to drill a third well at the pad. As of Tuesday morning, they’d reached a depth of 5,500 feet, said Jeff Salen, director of drilling operations for PDC.

The drill is surrounded by a mass of metal, machinery and stairs that looks like it’s been there for a while and isn’t going anywhere soon. But actually, Salen said, the rig was moved in and assembled within four days. When the drilling is done, the rig will come down and be taken to the next site.

A preview of what the well now being worked on will look like in the not-too-distant future can be found right beside it. The first well on the site, drilled last year, consists of an array of equipment often referred to as a “Christmas tree” because of its appearance, enclosed by an approximately 15-by-15-foot cage to protect it from any items that might fall from the rig.

Eventually, the second well on the pad, which has been drilled and cased, and the third one will look like that as well. The cages will be removed, and the area will go back to pasture for the most part, said Shawn Bennett, with Energy In Depth, a research, education and public outreach campaign launched by the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

“We’re talking about maybe less than an acre (footprint) when it’s reclaimed and everything,” he said.

Drilling

As the well is drilled, it is lined with multiple layers of steel pipe or casing and cement.

“It’s just to keep the oil and gas separated from any aquifers,” Salen said.

The well is equipped with a blowout preventer should a “gas kick” be encountered during the drilling process, Salen said.

“We don’t ever want to see oil and gas when we’re drilling,” he said.

Mud is pumped into the hole to keep the drill bit cool and lubricated, as well as prevent natural gas from escaping. If gas does escape, the blowout preventer closes off that section of the well until the material can be removed and drilling can safely resume, Salen said.

Standing in the midst of the pad and listening to the constant whir, whine and rumble of machinery, it seems a bit incongruous when Salen says, “the rigs are designed to be nice and quiet.”

But about a hundred feet from the pad, the sounds have already faded into the background, noticeable but hardly disruptive.

The lights that keep conditions on the pad as bright as day overnight do occasionally draw complaints from landowners, Salen said, but they’re necessary for safety reasons.

Drilling goes on 24 hours a day, and some workers actually live on the site, working 14 days on and 14 days off. A total of 25 to 30 workers are currently on-site each day, Salen said.

Time and money

A well goes in three phases, Hill said – drilling, completion and production. PDC wants to complete the first two phases in 22 to 25 days, and Salen estimated the third, and for the near future, final well at the Detweiler pad was about 10 days from production Tuesday.

The drilling phase on the third, and for now, final well at the Detweiler Pad is expected to cost about $3 million, Salen said.

“We spend about a hundred grand a day,” he said.

The drill is controlled in a room called the “doghouse” about 25 feet above the ground. A directional driller monitors graphs and gives instructions to the driller, who controls the drill’s descent on a computer touchscreen.

Many diagrams seem to indicate a well goes straight down, then the horizontal drilling takes off at a 90-degree angle. But the drilling is usually done at an angle to keep the new well from intersecting with others, Bennett said.

“It builds a gradual curve to get into that acreage,” he said.

Completion – the fracturing and other processes to get the oil and natural gas flowing – will run about $6 million.

“It’s a multimillion-dollar endeavor to drill the well,” Hill said. “There’s no guarantee that we’re going to get any return on our money. … It’s not for the faint of heart.”

But the companies have a pretty good idea of what this well will do based on the one currently producing.

Blake Roush, district operations manager for PDC Energy, pointed to the machine that separates what comes out of the well into three categories: oil and water, which are stored in a series of tanks about 200 feet from the drill, and natural gas, which goes into a Markwest pipeline to Cadiz, about 40 miles northeast in Harrison County.

Salen said fracking fluid only comes out of the well during the fracturing phase itself.

“After that, it’s actual formation water,” he said.

Normally, multiple wells would be drilled in succession and the tanks and separator would be farther away from the wells themselves, said Roush, who is based in Marietta.

“We had to build this equipment to test the original exploratory well,” he said. “We decided this was a reasonably good location, so we came back in.”

Washington County

PDC has drilled and fracked an exploratory well on Dixon Ridge Road near Lowell. It’s currently in a 60-day resting period before production can start, Roush said.

Fracking of a second Washington County well, on Righteous Ridge in Waterford, began Monday.

How those wells perform when they start producing will determine what else the company does in the area

“Those are going to drive what we do,” he said. “Tentatively we’re returning to the Dixon Ridge location in three months … to drill additional wells.”