Drilling and Fracturing
Both vertical and horizontal wells are used in shale gas drilling and completion; however, horizontal wells are the increasing trend due to both environmental concerns and economic efficiency (DOE, 2009). Horizontal drilling allows more exposure within the formation to optimize capture of natural gas as well as reducing the environmental footprint of drilling activity (DOE, 2009). The United States Department of Energy’s recently released document on shale gas development in the United States explains that “a vertical well may be exposed to as little as 50 ft of formation while a horizontal well may have a lateral wellbore extending in length from 2,000 to 6,000 ft within the 50-300 ft thick formation” (DOE, 2009, p.47). As such, surface disturbance and impacts to wildlife and communities are reduced while providing optimal gas recovery; considering 16 vertical wells per 640-acre section of land would disturb 77 acres, the equivalent in horizontal wells (4- horizontal wells) would disturb approximately 7.4 acres (DOE, 2009). In addition to reductions in surface disturbance, horizontal wells allow for development in areas previously considered unavailable, primarily urban and environmentally sensitive or protected areas. Well pads can be located away, or ‘setback’, from residences, roadways, wildlife habitats and other protected areas without hampering access to available gas reserves.
In order to recover the shale gas after drilling a well, current industry practice is to hydraulic fracture the formation to stimulate the near wellbore area and facilitate the release of natural gas trapped within the shale. Hydraulic fracturing is a process whereby a fracturing fluid, primarily water, is pumped into the formation under pressure at a calculated rate to form fractures and cracks within the formation, providing a pathway for the gas to migrate to the wellhead for recovery. Sand or other granular materials are added to the fracturing fluid to help ‘prop’ open the newly created fractures after the fluid has been removed from the formation (ALL, 2008a). Additional chemicals may be added to the fracturing fluid for specific engineering purposes; these additions may include friction-reducing agents, biocides and various stabilizers to prevent corrosion of metal piping in the well (DOE, 2009; ALL, 2008a). Depending on the formation and well characteristics, multiple fracturing procedures may be performed in order to fully develop the well for gas recovery (DOE, 2009). While each well and geologic formation is unique, continuing advances in horizontal drilling and well completion practices provide additional reductions in environmental impacts from oil and gas activities while providing the nation’s critical energy supply.