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Marcellus shale gas-drilling site along PA Route 87, Lycoming County. By Nicholas A. Tonell CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Learning from the Marcellus to drill the Utica

Madasyn Czebiniak | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

In 2011, Jeffrey C. Dick was approached by a woman on the Garrettsville, Ohio, Board of Public Affairs. She was concerned about five Utica Shale gas wells being drilled nearby.

“She was taking an approach to protect their water from potential contamination,” Mr. Dick said. “They’re a village of about 2,000 people, and they get all of their drinking water from two public water supply wells.”

Because of that concern, the Garrettsville board hired Mr. Dick, director of the Natural Gas and Water Resources Institute at Youngstown State University, to conduct a groundwater baseline study on about 20 wells in the surrounding area that supply water.

The study was funded by tax dollars, Mr. Dick said. It began in 2012 and is ongoing.

Mr. Dick monitors the well water twice a year, in spring and fall. So far his research has found traces of chemicals associated with conventional oil and gas activity in the groundwater such as chloride, barium and methane, but they are not above the maximum concentration limits imposed by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

“What we found was evidence that oil and gas wells, not Utica wells, may have leaked materials,” Mr. Dick said.

Parts of eastern Ohio, including Portage County where Garrettsville is located, used to be hot spots for traditional drilling activity, which could explain the chemicals found in the water, Mr. Dick said.

“In order to determine the exact cause of it, it would take considerably more effort, but we did determine there has been leakage,” he added.

Shale gas drilling in Ohio might still in the early stages, but Mr. Dick wishes more communities would take the same approach as Garrettsville, which is currently the only one with a groundwater baseline study.

Such studies can be beneficial for when more shale gas activity is introduced to the area because they show what was in a water supply before any drilling took place, Mr. Dick said.

“If you don’t have data that tells what your water quality was like before the drilling, you don’t have a leg to stand on in court,” he said.

 

Q: Why has it taken longer than other shale gas plays for the Utica’s potential to be recognized?

A: There was a study done in 2006 that clearly identified the Utica shale as the major source of oil and gas in Ohio. I think it’s been known for a long time. What really kept the Utica from developing was the technology to drill shale gas wells didn’t come to Appalachian Basin until 2007-08.

The other driving force is the cost of oil. When oil gets expensive, oil and gas companies start looking for new opportunities so they can make money. I think the Utica Shale has been a target for a while. It just had to start making economic sense.

 

Q: What is the state of regulations on well construction in Ohio, and how do they compare with Pennsylvania?

A: In Pennsylvania, it’s controlled by the Department of Environmental Protection, and in Ohio, it’s controlled by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ division of oil and gas. Both states do a good job on regulating the construction, the permitting, the location. Ohio has the added regulatory authority for injection wells, which Pennsylvania does not, and, frankly, that’s why Pennsylvania only has eight injection wells and Ohio has more than 200.

In Ohio, they’ve established a good regulatory structure. It’s one of the best in the United States for injection wells. We’re the only state that has seismic monitoring requirements. If there’s earthquake activity within some radius of an injection well, then the Department of Natural Resources has the authority to shut down that injection well.

 

Related: Shale wizard McClendon: “Utica best in the U.S.”

 

Q: As the Utica develops, will you continue to look to the Marcellus as an example?

A: The exploration and development of the Utica Shale, how they approached it, was based on the way the Marcellus was drilled in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. What’s likely to unfold in the Utica is very close to the way the Marcellus unfolded.

One of the things that determines how much gas, oils or liquids you pull out [of a well] is how you design the drilling and the hydraulic fracturing of that well. When you look at the actual hydraulic fracturing operations, so much of what we do in the Utica is based on what they did in the Marcellus.

Another thing you see in the Marcellus is how they’re handling the water coming out of these wells once they start producing. You have to do something with this water. You can’t just dump it into rivers. It has to be treated.

Pennsylvania and West Virginia are way ahead of the Utica with how they take care of that water. Pennsylvania doesn’t have injection wells to dispose of it, and Ohio has lots of them. So they come up with alternatives to make it cheaper to do. And Ohio will get there, but they’re not under pressure from gas companies to find cheaper alternatives.

 

Q: Do you think Pennsylvania has been doing a good job in terms of wastewater treatment?

A: What I like that they’re doing in Pennsylvania is they’re actually taking the water that comes out [of a well] and they’re recycling it. If you put 5 million gallons of water into the ground, you’ll get about a million gallons back. The common practice is to take that water and do basic filtration on it. Once they’ve done that, they take that water and mix it with four million gallons of fresh water and re-frack another well.

Ultimately, I would like to see water treatment technology to the point where it’s economically feasible to treat the water and clean it up to be discharged into our waterways without any hazards to the ecosystem.

I’m cautiously optimistic that within the next 10 years you’re going to see a shift to cleaning up the water so it can be discharged back into the surface waters where it came from.

 

Madasyn Czebiniak: mczebiniak@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1269. Twitter: @PG_Czebiniak

 

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