A common sight in the 1800's in Wetzel County and the state of West Virginia, tall oil derricks doting the county side, are now being replaced by the new technology of drilling in the 21st century.
The wildcatters of that day would be amazed at how natural gas is being sought and drilled for now. With the Marcellus Shale in the area as the next big natural gas shale basin, great-grandfathers of the past oil drilling boom days would shake their heads in disbelief of this new way of drilling for natural gas, horizontally.
Horizontal drilling is the process of drilling a well from the surface down to targeted gas bearing formations, then turning the wellborne horizontal and continuing to drill sideways while staying within the formation. This allows drillers to reach natural gas under roads, buildings, and homes.
This drilling rig, Yost Rig 240 or Durig 2H located on Macedonia Ridge, not far from Silver Hill, is an example of modern horizontal drilling for natural gas. (Photo by Tammy Wayman)
According to studies conducted by Navigant Consulting, Inc., the U.S natural gas industry is extremely robust. Information is showing there is more natural gas in these shale basins than estimated. Chesapeake Energy saw the future of the different 23 shale basins throughout the country. With their sights on the Wetzel and Marshall counties area right now, the drilling has begun.
The local county courthouses in the last two years have seen an overload of landmen and reachers contracted out by companies doing research on titles of property owners that clearly own mineral rights under their land. The process of these leasing agreements for their mineral rights has already begun with local land owners. And with this, the drilling to tap into the this valuable resource has commenced.
In August 2008, Chesapeake Energy started in Wetzel County on the Yost Rig 240, or Durig 2H well on Macedonia Ridge, not far from the Silver Hill area. They called this Eastern Division the Victory Prospect, because just getting the rig to the drill site was a victory, since Chesapeake was accustomed to drilling in areas of flat land.
Recently seismic testing was completed in the Marshall and Wetzel counties areas with helicopters to help assist in finding the shale below. Helicopters were used because of West Virginia's steep hills.
A site visit was granted by Chesapeake Energy to see what this process is all about. They welcomed officials to the Stern site, also called Nomac 242 rig, is located just inside the Marshall County line in the Greenfield Ridge area.
Like most rigs, the 242 rig consists of a four-man crew with the Toolpusher included. The Toolpusher is the rig's supervisor, whose job is to coordinate the activities of the rig. He makes sure the materials and parts are available and communicates closely with the operator of what progress is being made or if problems arise.
According to Joseph Kennedy, Chesapeake Drilling Safety Manager, the rig crew works 12 hour shifts. They work seven days straight in a row, then they have seven days off. The crew is exposed to the elements of all the seasons on a rig, winter being the worst, because a rig never shuts down while in operation. Many crew members drive in to the New Martinsville area to stay at the local motels while they are working, because they are away from home.
In the small trailer on the rig's deck, or the "dog house" as the rig's crew would call it, the Chesapeake representatives on hand presented technology that is now being used in the drilling process.
On a flat panel screen is the MWD (measurement while drilling) unit, that sends data back to the surface to let them know where they are drilling and how far they need to go. This is definitely a technology asset for the drilling process. Mud pulse telemetry is used with the motorized hydraulic drill bit. Watching the rig's operation, one quickly sees that a lot of the process is now completed by hydraulics. Many of the controls for this are in the dog house and some are on outside on the rig's deck area.
The rig decks on these new local rigs are not as big as one expects, not like the ones used out in the flat land areas of the United States. These are smaller temporary rigs that can be moved easily. The constant noise running in the background is loud and when the 45-feet pipes are being added in the rig's shaft below ground, the deck shakes.
As Mike John, vice president of corporate development and relations of Chesapeake, said, "Our company is the leader in this new technology. We learn from every well drilled. We are encouraged by the results of what we see. We have our very own core lab for testing."
John also explained that just one rig can created between 100 and 120 jobs, with supplies that have to be hauled to the job site and so much more that is involved in the drilling process.
Stacey Brodak, manager of corporate development, noted they have hired local people recently.
Fracing a well is also part of Chesapeake's development in getting the natural gas out. Sand, water, and other additives are pumped at high pressure down the wellbore. This, in turn, causes fracturing of the rock, sand, and propellants in the cracks. This is monitored and gauged for pressure as the frac progresses and they slowly increase the density of sand to water. When done, the wellbore is temporarily plugged between each stage to maintain the highest water pressure possible to get the best results.
Then the frac plugs are drilled or removed from the wellbore and the well is tested for the results.
The water pressure is reduced and the fluids are returned up to the wellbore for disposal, treatment, or re-use, leaving the sand in place to keep the cracks open to allow gas to flow. Without fracing, however, the shale gas drilling would be worthless. The hydraulic fracturing can take up to three to five days.
When they are done drilling at this spot, they will move the rig which contains a custom skidding system, over 14 to 16 feet, and start the drilling process again. A well can take up to three to four weeks for the drilling to be done. The pad, as they call the location, will have been drilling on six to possibly eight different times with the whole rig still on the site. When done, the rig is dismantled and moved to a different location. This is completely different than how they drilled for natural gas in the past.
This leaves a smaller environmental footprint and it saves the time of dismantling the rig and transporting to many different locations.
But for those living in or around the area of drilling, the environmental issue, road conditions, and the sharing the of road with the big rigs hauling the equipment is a hot topic.
Brodak explained that a number, such as rig 242 , stays with the rig when it is moved. Only the location will change. Chesapeake has the rig's name and number outside of each location if one would take a drive out to look at the wells out Macedonia Ridge and further out.
Chesapeake currently has six wells in the area with the shale between 7,000 to 7,200 feet below the surface. Since the terrain is a challenge in West Virginia, the company had to come up with different ideas for the problems they faced. One was hauling the water needed, so they started building a network of 100,000 gallon ponds located throughout the drilling areas. These ponds are spread out in different locations and water moves from the temporary pipelines to numerous well sites. They are very large and require heavy equipment to build them. These ponds are being built on the land owners' property that are in an agreement with Chesapeake Energy.
Although we know that West Virginia has had its big oil boom days in the past, it seems that the Marcellus Shale with the natural gas below will be bringing on a different type of drilling boom that will effect West Virginia, including Wetzel and surrounding counties.