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Aerial view of the Pittsburgh International Airport (Image via WikiMedia Commons)

After months of prep, Consol Energy begins fracking first wells at airport

A dense cluster of pipes, pumps, silos and engines hummed harmoniously across a rugged field on a wet morning earlier this month.

“This is about as much excitement as you see on a fracking site,” said Steve Snyder, completions manager for Consol Energy Inc.

Mr. Snyder was referring to Pad 2, the first of six total drilling sites to be developed by the Canonsburg energy company on property owned by the Pittsburgh International Airport. With the help of Halliburton, Consol began drilling the top vertical portions of six wells on the pad in August, then drilled the horizontal portions in December with an electric rig. The company began fracking April 1.

Hydraulic fracturing, company officials explained, is rather simple on the surface: Water mixed with sand and chemicals is pumped into the ground to break sections of shale rock and release previously trapped natural gas. It’s the sheer scale of the operations — especially those underground — that can be difficult to fathom.

Workers had dug an impoundment the size of a football field to contain 13 million gallons of fresh water, which is piped to the site and stored in an above-ground tank. Sand is trucked in and deposited in towering silos. Two giant, automated blenders mix the water and sand at a precise ratio — more water than sand at first, then more sand than water — that usually averages out at about half-sand, half-water for each well.

Operators frack each well in horizontal segments measuring 150 to 250 feet and work from “toe to heel,” said Mark Debbins, the company’s regional operations manager. This means they “perforate” the outermost segment by sending down an electrical charge that shoots small holes through the cement casing.

Then pumper trucks, powered by low-emissions diesel engines, drive down the water, sand and chemical mixture into the ground at a pressure of 9,000 pounds per square inch.

Pittsburgh International projected it would bring in about $500 million when it signed a deal with Consol in February 2013 to lease 9,000 acres for as long as the natural gas flows. Consol paid the airport $50 million up front and expects an additional $450 million in royalties over the life of the well. That’s in addition to $500 million in capital Consol expects to invest.

The fracking on Pad 2 should be completed by June, company officials said, and then it will focus on developing Pad 1 and Pad 4 further north on the airport property.

In related news, Consol Energy rolls out equipment to cut emissions at its airport drilling operations.

This article was written by Daniel Moore from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.