Signs of pride and prosperity were evident all over Williamsport and the gorgeous northern Pennsylvania countryside around it. Friendly, happy people greeted us. New cars, trucks, hotels and restaurants sparkled in a clean, bustling downtown. New roofs topped barns and houses, while late model tractors worked the fields. Former dirt roads are now paved.
Men and women again have high-paying jobs, young people are coming back instead of moving away, their salaries are supporting other businesses and jobs, and many are taking college programs in oilfield technical and business specialties, Vince Matteo told me. As president and CEO of the Williamsport/Lycoming County Chamber of Commerce, he’s witnessed the transformation.
“98 percent of the change has been positive,” he says. Contributions to United Way are increasing each year, county infrastructure has improved enormously, and environmental impacts are minimal.
Visits to several Anadarko Petroleum drilling and fracking sites explained why. The operations are far more high-tech than what I had seen previously on rigs in the Rocky Mountains, off the Louisiana and California coasts, and last fall in Alberta’s oil sands region. Hydraulic fracturing was first employed in Kansas in 1947. But steadily improved fracking technology is now combined with computers, down-hole sensors and microseismic instruments. Drilling equipment, lets crews send a bit 6,000 feet down and 8,000 feet laterally into Marcellus Shale formations – and end up within three feet of their intended target!
The operations are conducted from atop a multi-layered felt and impermeable plastic pad, surrounded by a berm, to keep unlikely spills from contaminating farm and forest land. Multiple wells are drilled from a single pad and “kicked out” horizontally in various directions. The drilling rig is skidded a short distance to four or five more locations around the pad, the entire array is fractured at high pressure, and short wellheads are installed to collect natural gas and send it to local and interstate pipeline networks.
A nearby impoundment is also lined with plastic to hold water for fracturing operations. Topsoil removed to prepare the pad and pond is stored nearby. As operations are finished, the land is reclaimed, topsoil is replaced, and local grasses, flowers and shrubs are planted, to create meadows for deer and wild turkeys –- or anything else the landowners prefer. To launch 20-40 years of hydrocarbon production from a 15,000-acre (23-square-mile) area requires barely 2% surface disturbance, most of it for just a few months.
Once the work is completed, the area quietly and unobtrusively produces decades of energy and revenue for farmers, wildlife organizations, hunting groups, and local, state and federal treasuries.
Hydraulic fracturing takes place some 5,500 feet (almost four Empire State Buildings) below the water table. To prevent groundwater contamination, pipe penetrating the first seven hundred feet is surrounded by layers of steel casing and specialized cement. During the drilling and fracturing process, even rainwater collected from the drill pad is saved and used. Some of the water used to fracture the shale is also recovered during gas production; this “flowback” water itself is filtered, treated and reused.
The hydraulic fracturing process requires some 2.0-4.2 million gallons of water per well, but fresh or brackish water works equally well.