CLEVELAND: Development of Ohio’s liquid-rich Utica shale continues to ramp up, with businesses expected by early summer to start up highly expensive facilities to process the natural gas and liquids coming from the deep wells.
There are 45 Utica shale wells producing this year out of 188 drilled so far in the eastern part of Ohio, Michael McCormac, manager in the Ohio Department of Natural Resources said Thursday. He and others took part in a symposium at a large Utica shale-themed trade show and conference, Oilfield Expo 2012, in the I-X Center sponsored by the Ohio Oil and Gas Association.
Hundreds more wells are going to be drilled annually, then hydraulically fractured, or fracked, to release the natural gas and liquids trapped in the shale thousands of feet underground, the state predicts. By 2015, Ohio expects that 2,250 shale wells will be drilled, McCormac said.
The shale development is transforming not only parts of Ohio, but also entire industries, McCormac and other speakers said.
Carroll County “is the epicenter of activity now,” McCormac said. “I would say there’s still a lot of exploration going on. ... There’s really a lot of work being done to understand the Utica.”
The state government is hiring dozens of inspectors and others to keep up with the shale activity, McCormac said.
Injection wells, where primarily waste brine water — a byproduct of the fracking process — is pushed deep underground for storage below drinking water aquifers, remains the best management practice to handle the unusable fluid, state geologist Tom Tomastik said.
Recycling the salts-filled wastewater eventually might replace or significantly supplement injection wells, he said.
“Right now, injection is the way to go,” he said. Even with all the drilling, eastern Ohio still is a “viable injection zone.”
There has been no case in Ohio where fracking has contaminated drinking water, he said. The cases where drinking water was found contaminated involved such things as faulty shale well casings, not the fracking process itself, he said.
Les Smith, with Utica East Ohio Midstream LLC, a joint venture of Chesapeake Energy and other companies, said the first of two cryogenic processing facilities for the Utica shale products pulled out of the ground around eastern Ohio will start to come online in May. One plant is being built in Columbiana County and the other in southwest Carroll County. The plants are more than a $1 billion investment, he said.
“We will take liquids out of the gas at those two sites,” Smith said. The separated liquids will be piped or transported by rail elsewhere. The rail operations eventually might run 24 hours a day, he said.
“We’re well into it. The next six months is barreling toward us,” Smith said. “We’re on schedule.”
There are now 32 states producing natural gas in the United States, said Kathryn Clay of the Drive Natural Gas Initiative, an industry-funded organization created to increase demand for natural gas, including for use in truck fleets as well as in passenger vehicles.
“The nation’s energy landscape has fundamentally changed” because of shale gas, Clay said.
Until just recently, natural gas was thought of as a “bridge fuel” to get the nation to other sources of power, said Russ Young, with General Electric Thermal Products.
Not anymore, he said.
Shale “has fundamentally changed the power-generation landscape,” he said.
In less than two years, the ability to tap shale has transformed natural gas from a “bridge” fuel to a “destination” fuel, Young said. Shale natural gas is abundant and significantly cleaner and with a much smaller carbon footprint than coal, he said.
In a short period, the United States has gone from wanting to build facilities to import liquified natural gas to facilities to export it, Young said.
“Supply is generally not a problem in the industry. It’s creating demand,” he said. Natural gas is already replacing coal in electricity production, he said.
“Coal is going through a retirement cycle,” Young said. General Electric has responded in part to rapid shale industry growth by designing natural gas-powered turbines for baseload electric power generation, he said.
“[Shale] is changing the way technology is being developed,” Young said.
The oil and natural gas industry has to make sure shale fuel can continue to be extracted, not just profitably, but also safely and in environmentally sound ways, he said.
Jim Mackinnon can be reached at 330-996-3544 or firstname.lastname@example.org.