2,000 Feet Above the Emerging Shale Industry
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- From two thousand feet above, flying over Mahoning, Columbiana and Carroll counties, it’s a challenge to keep count.
Looking out the window on the left side of a small seaplane, we see a well pad waiting for a rig. From the window on the right side, we see bulldozers moving dirt, piling gravel for the well pad being built. Outside the front window, looking to our pilot’s left, we see a drilling rig at work on another site. Then, to the right, two wellheads standing alone on a well pad – a site either in production or waiting to be fracked.
“You can see a lot more from up in the sky than you can from the ground driving around,” says our pilot, Bill Bieber, who flies over this changing landscape nearly every week, both for business and pleasure.
Bieber is co-owner Green Valley Seed in Canfield, a wholesaler seeing its business grow as landscapers win contracts to provide erosion control and reclamation seeding at well and pipeline sites.
Bieber obtained his pilot’s license in 1991 and now flies a Maule M-7 amphibian. On this flyover of the emerging shale industry, we touch down briefly on the Ohio River and paddle by the Wellsville Intermodal Park where Marathon Oil is investing $2.4 million to build wet-gas holding tanks and a pipeline to barges docked there, destined for oil refineries downstream.
“I’ve taken some people for rides, just for pleasure, just to show them what’s going on – just like yourselves,” Bieber says.
“It’s amazing and they’re saying this industry is in its infancy.”
We climbed aboard at Youngstown Elser Metro Airport in North Lima on a clear summer day. Within a minute of takeoff, we flew over Consol Energy’s first well in Mahoning County, on the Hendricks property in Ellsworth Township, not far from Diamondhead Golf Course. It was mid-May when Consol began building its well pad here. As we fly over in mid-August, horizontal drilling is nearly complete, and as we go to press in mid-September, the well has been hydraulically fractured and awaits production.
Heading south to Columbiana County, we see where Chesapeake Energy is building a well pad near Salem. We come to Guilford Lake south of Salem. Visualizing a 360-degree vantage point from the border of the lake, we attempt a count.
We see one well pad under construction, then a site where a newly built road leads to land where dirt is being moved for a well pad. We see another drilling rig, then a site with just a well pad, then two wellheads at a third site with no signs of production – no compression tanks or above-ground pipelines.
Two more drilling rigs come into range as we bear southwest and see the first well that appears to be in production. From the air, it’s difficult to tell when we cross into Carroll County but we must be close. Two separate well sites are visible from both sides of Bieber’s seaplane, each with wellheads waiting to be tapped. More and more well pads come into view, some with ponds already dug for the six million gallons of water that will be needed for drilling, some without ponds.
We see a well that appears to be in the process of being fracked. The yellow tanks lined up suggest the process is under way, observes our pilot.
“When you drive down these roads, you don’t see any of this,” Bieber says.
But from the air – more so than on the ground -- it’s more difficult to spot where pipelines have been laid. We see some green pathways between stands of trees, indicating newly planted grass (quite possibly from seed Bieber’s company has sold), and some excavation for pipelines to come.
“It’s clustered in little areas,” Bieber says of the emerging pipeline network.
“I’m no expert,” he emphasizes, “but I don’t see any problems that all this drilling is causing.”
Nor does Dan Burton, the owner of Advanced Landscaping in Salem, which buys seed, hydro-mulch, straw blankets and pins from Bieber’s Green Valley Seed.
“We have a full-time crew devoted to reclamation seeding with the oil and gas industry,” Burton says. “Even if we weren’t doing business with them, I would be a big supporter.”
Advanced Landscaping works with one of Chesapeake Energy’s vendors, W. Pol Contracting of Ravenna. Chesapeake, the No. 1 driller of shale wells in Columbiana and Carroll counties, “does things above and beyond everyone, way more than they are required to do by law,” Burton says.
“They’re really environmentally conscious.”
So, too, is Bieber and that’s why Green Valley Seed sells endophyte-free grass seed to landscapers hired to re-seed farm land where pipelines have been laid. An endophyte, he explains, is a bacterium or fungus that protects grass from insects but is harmful to grazing animals.
“We’re trying to educate people about this and talking to the pipeline companies,” Bieber says.
As we pick out a few more newly seeded pipeline paths from the air, we come to the Tennessee Gas Pipeline Compressor Station No. 21, due west of Salineville on Cobbler Road in Carroll County. This compressor station is not new and is one of more than 1,200 in the nation’s pipeline network that transports dry natural gas – but not the wet gas (hydrocarbons) so plentiful (and lucrative) in the Utica shale.
Wet case gathering lines, processing plants and transmission lines are in the first phase of development in eastern Ohio – illustrated by the newly seeded pipeline paths we flew over and the hundreds of millions of dollars being invested by midstream companies.
As we fly southeast of Carrolton, we see a huge staging area for drilling equipment and vehicles, an adjacent well pad and a huge pond holding countless millions of gallons of water. Next comes a well site that’s pumping full tilt, then one where a rig is in place – still drilling – but no holding pond. We assume water is being trucked in from the staging area but we have no way of confirming our assumption.
We come to a limestone quarry, then to an old coal mine where the land has been reclaimed, so much so, “It pretty well blends in,” our pilot observes. Conversation turns to the irony of mined-out coal lands being mined again, only thousands of feet deeper and for shale gas. We marvel that the mineral resources so rich in this land of ours are fueling the development of a whole new industry.
We land briefly on the Ohio River at Wellsville, then take off, heading back to Elser Airport, only now flying over Calcutta and south of Columbiana.
We see pieces of a rig lying on a well pad, ready to be assembled.
“There was nothing on that well pad two weeks ago,” Bieber advises.
By now, we’ve all lost count.
EDITOR's NOTE: This story was first published in the MidSeptember edition of The Business Journal. CLICK HERE to subscribe.
Copyright 2012 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.
Copyright 2013 Youngstown Publishing Co. DBA The Business Journal
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