Consol Puts Employees, Visitors to the (Safety) Test
NORTH JACKSON, Ohio -- Consol Energy places such an emphasis on safety that the company puts everyone to the test – even reporters invited to tour a well site in Jackson Township Oct. 2.
For nearly an hour and a half, members of print and broadcast media were primed on the safety and environmental standards followed at every Consol well site by the company safety manager, Kevin Ice.
Everything from required equipment, gear and cell phone use, down to how visitors and employees at the site are expected to park their vehicles was covered.
And yes, a quiz followed.
"We want to be sure you're paying attention," Ice said after he aired a 30-minute video of the many detailed precautions and safety regulations Consol adheres to. A second video related to maintaining environmental standards was shown shortly after. And another quiz followed.
Such is the protocol for Pittsburgh-based Consol Energy as it starts to ramp up its drilling activity in the Utica shale. To date, the company has drilled four wells in Ohio, one in Ellsworth Township in Mahoning County.
Two additional wells are being drilled at the North Jackson site, named the MAHN-7 well, a location outfitted with one of Consol's newest rigs. The 154-foot high derrick was designed with some of the latest safety features, and the site is ringed with earthen berms built up about five feet to contain any spillage should that occur.
Consol has contracted with a Houston-based drilling company to perform the actual natural gas exploration, says Pete Nickel, Consol's horizontal rig manager, but the company managers are onsite everyday to monitor operations.
Among the more modern features of this particular rig is an automated catwalk that lifts drill pipe and casings to the rig floor, Nickel, reports. "The automated catwalk, we feel, is a much safer way of picking up pipe," he says, noting that the traditional method uses a winch system that would hoist the pipe. "We try to implement automated catwalks to all the rigs we're using."
The automated method may take a tad more time, Nickel notes, but he emphasizes that safety is the No. 1 priority when it comes to Consol's operations. "We walk the walk," he remarks.
Nickel also explains that a series of steel well casings are set in place and cemented to protect the environment. A conductor hole has been drilled at the first well and a 30-inch casing sunk to a depth of 106 feet.
Then, a 20-inch surface casing was lowered to a depth of 380 feet, or 50 feet below the natural aquifer, and then cemented in place to prevent any migration of particles or fluids from the drilling process into the water reservoir. The process is repeated as an intermediate string of casings is lowered to a depth of 1,000 feet, and a fourth string is inserted to a depth of 6,850 feet, completing the vertical leg of the well.
"We don't go into this with a little thought," Nickel says. "We're talking about three strings of steel casing and three sheets of cement protecting drinking water. In our drilling plans, there's no way to damage the aquifer."
The path then turns horizontally to drill across the length of the Utica, which is between 300 and 600 feet thick.
Once the drill pipe is sunk, it can be extracted from the borehole and hoisted to the "monkey board," a platform about 100 feet above the ground where another rig worker, called a "derrickman" stands roughly 13,000 feet of pipe in roughly 90-foot sections. That pipe could then be reused when the second well is drilled at the site, Nickel says.
The borehole for the second well is situated just 20 feet away, and the large rig is automatically controlled so it can essentially "walk" the distance to the next well at a pace of about seven feet an hour. The entire rig weighs close to one million pounds when considering the 13,000 feet of pipe stored on the monkey board.
The rig at the MAHN-7 is just about a year old and much of the infrastructure, generators and surrounding support systems are also very new, Nickel says. Workers in the control room, so named the "doghouse" in oil and gas terminology, can monitor every aspect of the drilling operation, including depth and the quantities of water used and displaced. This information is fed in real time to the operator's headquarters in Houston.
Between 20 and 25 employees work onsite, Nickel says. About 60% of them are from out of town, while the rest are hired from Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Once both wells are horizontally drilled, they're prepared for hydraulic fracturing. The technique calls for injecting sand, water, and a mixture of chemicals under high pressure to blast and break apart tight shale formations and unlock oil and gas inside.
Harry Schurr, general manager for Consol's Utica joint venture with Hess Corp., says Consol is targeting five counties in Ohio: Tuscarawas, Mahoning, Trumbull, Portage and Noble. Its joint venture partner, Hess, has staked out positions in Harrison, Jefferson and Belmont counties in southeastern Ohio.
"At this site, we're drilling the first of two horizontal well bores that we're going to use to test the Utica shale," he told reporters just before the rig tour.
A Consol well in Ellworth Township just off of Western Reserve Road in Mahoning County is now drilled and is being prepared for hydraulic fracturing, Schurr reports.
But work on another well in Trumbull County – the Wollam well in Vienna Township – has stopped, Schurr adds. "We just looked at it with our partners and we decided it's an area right now that we're not interested in pursuing," Schurr told reporters. "So, what we've done is taken an approach here of wait-and-see."
He says wells drilled from other energy companies in the southeastern portion of the state indicate the returns are much higher there than in northeastern Ohio, Schurr says. "We're getting a better feel of how the whole play is working, and we're looking at our acreage positions and strategically deciding where we want to move and at what pace."
Such data are vital in determining where to drill because the average investment in well ranges from $6 million to $14 million, Schurr says. Other information mined from seismic testing is also valuable when it comes to selecting a particular drill site.
"There's multiple types of seismic," he says. Large seismic trucks record and monitor features below the surface, which can give an indication on where to drill early on in the site selection process. Once the wells are drilled and fractured, micro-seismic tests are performed in order to help engineers understand the how specific fractures are positioned, and how to best retrieve the oil and gas reserves there.
"A lot of it depends on the first well, a lot of it depends on science," Schurr says.
The Mahoning wells remain in their testing phase, Schurr cautions, and there are no hard data yet on what they'll produce. Once that's determined, then a decision will be made on constructing pipeline infrastructure from the well sites.
"First, we would go through a testing mode where we would flow it into tanks and maybe flare the gas if we're able to produce it, and get some feel for what type of production we're going to get from this well," Schurr says.
This testing consists of evaluating what type of gas at the particular site, such as oil, dry gas or natural gas liquids, Schurr says. "We measure it, and put it through some paces, if you will."
These methods include opening the well and testing it for long periods or time, then shutting it in to get a grip on how much pressure is required to bring the gas up as well as mapping some of the reservoir boundaries, Schurr says.
"We have a whole group of people who will look at that data, take an understanding of it, and determine whether we're happy enough with the results to put in pipeline and continue exploring the area," he says.
Schurr adds that should the results of the two wells in Jackson Township and the other Consol well in Ellsworth prove encouraging, it could give the company a competitive edge in this part of the Utica.
"Hopefully, we'll be ahead of everybody else and know a little bit more about this area that maybe others don't know," he says.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was first published in the MidOctober edition of The Business Journal. CLICK HERE to subscribe.
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