What to Expect in Your Back 40
What to expect in your Back 40....
An incomplete description of what landowners can expect when the Marcellus natural gas drills arrive
Jennifer J. Halpern, PhD
Disclaimer: This article focuses on the changing sights and sounds you and your neighbors may experience once natural gas exploration, development, and production begins on your land. It is not intended to discuss the political, environmental, or legal aspects of the decision, or to consider your contract in depth.
Most landowners leasing land for Marcellus natural gas development are inexperienced with drilling and industrial-scale operations, leading to misunderstandings of even well-intentioned information. One family in Bradford, PA, for example, was told that they’d see a “house-sized propane tank” from their house. The father said, “We thought they meant like a residential tank, not one the size of a house.” 
However, when an engineer who works with industrial heating and cooling equipment heard this story, he thought the company’s description was clear. Air conditioning units the size of small school buses are common in his line of work; he connected immediately with the scale of the equipment. Most people, however, think air conditioners fit in the living room window — our sense of scale doesn’t match industrial-sized equipment, and so some people may feel they misunderstand what operators tell them.
This article offers an accessible description of what landowners experience at different stages during the process of drilling into the Marcellus Shale layer. Most of the factual information in this article was provided by either Brad Gill, director of Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York (IOGANY)  or by Mark Scheuerman, director of government and media relations for Talisman Energy, a prime player in Marcellus Shale development in New York and Pennsylvania, unless otherwise indicated.
Your Lease Means Drilling Is Likely
“You should never lease your land hoping that nothing will happen except that you get a check. You and the company have a mutual goal: to explore and develop natural gas reserves on your land so that you can both make money,” says Gill. Understanding what will happen on your land, however, is your responsibility.
“Where you are, what the company is drilling for, and the terms of your lease all affect what will happen on your land,” Gill observes. As the Marcellus layer is a different kind of shale than those more commonly drilled for natural gas, drilling procedures and the scale of the operation both differ significantly from those used in other layers. As a result, a neighbor’s experience with a traditional oil or gaswell -- or a Pennsylvania family’s experience — may differ from yours. Specific companies, land formations, depths reached, and specific lease terms all create unique experiences.
“No drilling/non trespassing” leases mean that your land contributes to the “drilling unit,” the minimum amount of land the company must lease in order to begin drilling. Companies should not bring any equipment onto your land; but you may still experience disruption from the work done on the adjoining parcels. Maps should show your parcel relative to the drilling pad.
What to Expect
Drilling into the Marcellus is an industrial operation. Think about it as having a factory built on your back 40. The well pad itself is somewhat like a 5-acre parking lot made of layers of stone and concrete; it will be on your property for approximately 30-50 years until production ceases. Land around the well pad will also be off-limits, Scheuerman notes.
The Exploration Phase
Exploration for gas may have occurred in your area before your lease was signed, as the company only needs permits from the locality, not leases. Geologists may have surveyed your area; and seismic trucks may have run tests to determine the thickness of the shale, before the company put in a request to the DEC to drill. These procedures are uninvasive and leave no permanent evidence on the landscape.
The preparation stage involves excavation for building a maintainable road that must withstand hundreds of trucks carrying tons of material. It requires sufficient drainage — must be large enough -- to prevent deterioration under heavy use. Some farmers are happy to have a well-paved road to their back 40, decreasing wear and tear on their vehicles, and eliminating the need to patch their own dirt road, according to Gill.
As with the building of any road, heavy equipment appears: including bulldozers, gravel trucks, and rollers. Trees are removed (some landowners opt to take care of that themselves.) Unlike most other construction projects with which we are familiar, however, the work on every aspect of the well continues 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Once the road is paved, the construction of the well pad begins. The well pad consists of 5 contiguous acres of layers of stone and concrete, constructed to support the heavy equipment and trucks of the drilling operation. It later provides access to the well heads, and supports dehydration/separation cylinders, and expansion tanks which remain for the duration of the productive life of the wells.
The configuration of your land may change when the well pad is constructed. Hilly land will be smoothed to support the well pad. Fencing and other security measures will surround the well pad.
A pit, about 200 yards wide and long (the size of 2 football fields in length and in width), and about 20-40 feet deep, may be dug to hold waste from the digging and later from the hydrofracturingv. The pit is usually lined and covered. In some operations, a closed-loop system is used, fluids coming from the well (“flowback”) instead goes directly into enormous steel tanks about 10-12 feet high, 8 feet wide and 8 feet deep.
Drilling equipment arrives once the well pad is prepared. The drilling rig could be as high as 140 feet, roughly the height of a 14 story building, with lights all the way to the top. About 8-10 people will be on the site at all times. Once drilling begins, it continues 24/7. In the case of the Marcellus, the drill punches a hole 6000 feet or so into the rock. In horizontal drilling (a process in which the steerable drill head turns from the vertical to horizontal in order to better access gas flowing through vertical fractures in the rock), the drill goes an additional 3,000-4,000 feet horizontally.vi. (For more information about drilling procedures, see Halpern, 2010.
The crew lines the bore hole with huge steel pipes and cement casing. You may hear the pipes dragged from the trucks to the drilling rig on metal catwalks. Sledge hammers knock dirt from the pipes, all day and night as needed. Cement trucks churn. Drilling and casing continue for 30-60 days, depending on the depth of the bore hole and the density of the rock. If fluid waste from drilling is placed in holding pits, these may be pumped out and filled with dirt at the end of drilling, unless the operator thinks it may be needed for later operations. If a closed-loop system is in use, trucks tow the holding tanks at intervals to a facility with a licensed landfill. The facility removes solids from the brine, and the water is returned to the site for later use in hydrofracturing.
After the drilling rig moves off the location, the logging (analysis) company arrives. They analyze the type of rock, its porosity, permeability, thickness, and general quality. Logging ensures that the well casing is perforated correctly so that the gas will flow into it during hydrofracturing.
Special equipment brought to the site on a 10-wheel truck perforates the casing. The equipment burns through the cement into the rock. This process is relatively quiet, as there is no vibration or air compression.
The next step is hydrofracturing (also called frac’ing in the industry.) Hydrofracturing usually takes only one day per zone, and a typical well has 2 or 3 zones. This process of forcing a mixture of water and chemical additives at high pressure down the bore hole widens existing fractures in the bedrock, extending them deeper into the formation to increase the network of fractures conducting the natural gas into the well. The process underground is quiet; the only sounds are the usual sounds of activity on the pad from truck engines and compressors.
Over 20 people will be at the site during this period— truck drivers and people managing the water trucks. After the fluid and sometimes nitrogen is pumped into the bore hole under pressure, the flowback comes up in a controlled fashion. Most of the flowback generally goes into steel tanks, which are towed off and replaced daily during the hydrofracturing. Later, the tanks will be towed and replaced on the company’s schedule.
A typical Marcellus well requires about 320 to 1365 tanker truck trips to build, drill, and hydrofracture, depending on the size of the trucks required for the site and road conditions, according to K. Moss of the National Park Service Geologic Resources Divisionv . (Hydrofracturing alone requires between 200 and 1150 truckloads.) A standard Marcellus well pad has 7 wells; thus, between 2000-9000 trips could be anticipated to bring a well pad into production. 
Once frac’d, the well is capable of flowing on its own. Two crewmembers remain to build the well head, riser, valves, tanks, and the “Christmas tree” (a vertical assembly of valves and hookups). Another team trenches and lays a pipeline to a transmission line. Some reclamation of the area around this producing pad may occur at this point, but no trees will be planted.
A 5-acre Marcellus producing well pad houses:
- 4-12 well heads, each about 6-8 feet high
- several brine holding tanks, with separator cylinders attached
- expansion tanks for water from the well
- 50-100 barrel tanks.
- Each tank is about 3-4 ft by 12-20 ft, and holds about 2,000 gallons. A tanks is about as wide as a boxcar, and about half as long as a standard length boxcar (or the same size as the smallest ocean freight container).
- Trucks for removing brine tanks.
Production Phase and Beyond
The well will be tended while it is in production. As often as once a week, a worker checks the pressures, and inspects for leaks. Some water will be blown off the well into the tank. The gas may be flared for safety purposes. Brine tanks will be routinely towed off the property and returned with the water cleaned for use on the site.
Some leases permit “infill drilling”, the addition of new wells in an existing field. This may happen at any time during the leased period, if it’s considered economic to accelerate recovery of the gas. New wells require the same investment of equipment, manpower, and bustle as the first group; new roadways may also have to be trenched and set, so it’s usually more financially sound to create the wells at the same time. However, regulations change, and flexible terms in a lease allow the company to adapt to those rules. One example of how infill drilling may affect some landholders: Marcellus well pads in New York State are currently to be set 160 to 320 acres apart; but it is anticipated that closer spacing could be approved later. For comparison, a football field is about 1.32 acres. Disneyland in California sits on about 60-70 acres of land.
According to Moss, refracturing the wells may also prove economically viable, as it has in the Barnett Shale in Texas, so landowners should assume the truck traffic associated with hydrofracturing may repeat itself as often as every 3-4 years during the wells’ lifetime. 
The well pad should be low impact and maintained: Scheuerman says that unless someone knows where to look it is unlikely that a casual observer will see the well pad and the large tanks on it. See Picture 1.
Other Family Concerns
Each family should ask about the different sounds, smells, and sights that will accompany each step of the drilling process. The noise will continue for several months. Lights from the tower orlines of trucks may shine in your windows during this time. Gill notes that some people focus on the check that they’ll receive later, and buy blackout curtains. In some cases, the company can work with a specific family to lessen the impact: when a young special needs child was acutely irritated by the noises of the construction, Gill reported, the company worked with them, lining a catwalk with rubber mats to minimize noise, and found ways to muffle the sledge hammers.
The story of reclamation will be told in the next article in this series.
- Speer, Lindsey. Headaches, Heartache, and Hydrofracking: Haudenosaunee visit Hedgehog Lane in Bradford, PA Haudenosaunnee Environmental Task Force. http://www.hetf.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=58:headaches-heartache-and-hydrofracking&catid=37:hydrofracking&Itemid=57
- Gill, a petroleum geologist, consults to oil and gas companies, and is a partner in a drilling company that operates in NY and PA, but not in the Marcellus Shale.Personal communication, October 7, 2010.
- A USGS study from 1981 noted a range from 8-69.7 ppm of uranium from 17 core samples from wells at several Marcellus sites. Tompkins County’s sample had a range of 25-53 ppm at a dept of 1380-1420 feet. This is approximately 20 times higher than background. Radioactivity in Marcellus Shale; Report prepared for Residents for the Preservation of Lowman and Chemung (RFPLC). Marvin Resnikoff, Ekaterina Alexandrova, Jackie Travers, Radioactive Waste Management Associates. 5/19/2010. http://www.rwma.com/Marcellus%20Shale%20Report%205-18-2010.pdf
- Scheuerman, personal communication, November 4, 2010
- Moss, Kerry. “Potential Development of the Natural Gas Resources in the Marcellus Shale.” National Park Service Geologic Resources Division. http://www.eesi.psu.edu/news_events/EarthTalks/2009Spring/materials2009spr/NatParkService-GRD-M-Shale_12-11-2008_view.pdf
- In addition, for general maintenance, 25-40 additional truckloads will come to the location over 3-5 years. Refracturing wells has proven effective in Texas; if this practice extends to the Marcellus Shale, then truck traffic will have few lulls. Reclamation is likely to require hundreds more truckloads.
- Moss, op. cit.