Editor’s Note: This is the fifth part in a six-part series giving a step-by-step look at the process that a natural gas company conducts to extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shale. The series is a collaboration with Chesapeake Energy and the company’s methods of operations are not meant to reflect the operations of other natural gas companies. 
 
The natural gas industry has brought many new things to northeastern Pennsylvania in a short amount of time. Businesses have grown, jobs have increased, pads have been built, wells have been drilled; all of which has happened relatively quickly compared to industry not even being significantly present in the area only several years ago. All of the construction by the natural gas industry, however, was built for the long process of production. Production is why the pads were built and the wells were drilled. Production is what it’s all about.
“During the production phase, we are preparing the natural gas to be sent to market,” Rory Sweeney of Chesapeake Energy said. “We want to get the highest price for the gas that we can, which is obviously in the best interests of landowners as well, and that can include some costs to process it.
 
“To begin the production process, a workover rig is brought onto the well pad to drill out the wellbore plugs that were installed during the hydraulic fracturing process,” he said. “Production tubing is then installed inside the containment of the production casing, and a permanent wellhead is also installed.”
 
From the wellhead, the natural gas is piped through separators, which separate the methane from any liquid and sand that comes up with the gas. The produced water is sent to steel production tanks on site, where it is stored until it can be collected and filtered through Aqua Renew, Chesapeake’s water recycling program. The program allows Chesapeake to recycle and reuse all of the water it uses throughout its operations in this region, whether it’s needed to clean equipment, drill a well or complete a fracture.
 
“The natural gas we’re producing in northeastern Pennsylvania is dry gas, which means it’s almost pure methane and there is very little else being produced,” Sweeney said. “This allows us to keep the necessary processing – and the related costs – to a minimum. After the separators, the gas is transported through a gathering pipeline to a compressor facility to receive more processing before being added to the interstate pipeline system, which transports gas to consumers across the country.”
 
Wells tapping the Marcellus Shale are expected to continue producing for decades, and a variety of monitoring equipment will keep careful watch over this process every step of the way.
 
“The wells are under daily monitoring through employees known as well-tenders and SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) operations,” Sweeney said. “Well-tenders visit the wells almost daily to examine the equipment and perform maintenance. Each well’s production equipment can behave differently, and well-tenders are often so familiar with each well that a quick scan can tell them exactly what adjustments need to be made. They do a lot of work on these wells to make sure everything is operating properly.”
 
SCADA, while not exclusive to the natural gas industry, is a technology system that allows Chesapeake to monitor the wells constantly. Additionally, the system has the ability to shut down the well and alert personnel if readings are outside of their specified parameters.
 
“These wells undergo constant maintenance and daily reports,” Sweeney added. “There’s a lot of technology that ensures that wells keep producing and, like all of our operations, safety is a top priority.” 
 
The final phase of the natural gas process is reclamation. For many landowners the reclamation process has been a topic of interest, since the intensity of development over the past few years has people questioning whether the land will ever be as it once was. But full reclamation of each site is an important consideration that is addressed before sites are even constructed. During the permit application process with the state Department of Environmental Protection, companies are required to develop reclamation plans and submit a bond for each well to ensure money will be available to complete the plan.
 
“Our current strategy is to drill one or two wells on each pad, but over the long term, we want to have six wells on each pad,” Sweeney said. “Until all of the wells are drilled, those pads will remain the way they are. 
 
“However, once a pad has all of the wells into production that are planned for it, some of the pad will be reduced in size and reclaimed, leaving only enough room for production equipment and activity,” he continued. “A lot of the work that went into building the pad will be reversed.
 
“Years from now, once the life of the wells have run out and no more gas is being produced, we will actually dig down and cut off the casing,” Sweeney said. “We will remove the stone and cement from the pad, bring in native topsoil and plant native vegetation, or we’ll work with the landowners’ preferences.
 
“All of the engineering that went into the construction of the well will be used to return the area back to its original condition.” 
Sweeney went on to say that in the long term, the environmental impact of the natural gas extraction process will be nothing. 
“When all is said and done, a former well pad will never be recognized as a well pad,” he said. “The only long term impact we’ll see is increased energy independence for America.” 
Johnny Williams can be reached at (570) 265-1639; email:jwilliams@northeastdriller.com.