Hydraulic fracturing – fracking – is the cornerstone of natural gas development today. Production companies drill a mile and a half deep and shoot a slurry of water, chemicals and sand down into the horizontal wells to break up the rock below and stimulate the release of gas hydrocarbons to the surface.
About a year and a half ago, CNX Corp. made a revolutionary – and evolutionary – decision. The Southpointe-based natural gas producer made a three-year deal to deploy an all-electric frac fleet owned by Evolution Well Services.
By doing so, CNX committed to eventually transitioning from the standard diesel-powered frac system to one that would be fueled by natural gas the company produced and powered by gas turbine. It took almost a year to implement the switch, but CNX used the new fleet for the first time in May, at a well site in Morris Township, Greene County. And that made the publicly held driller the first producer in the Appalachian Basin to go 100% electric on a well pad.
Nearly six months later, CNX is still going all-electric all the time in Greene County. The fleet, however, has relocated to the RHL71 well site in Richhill Township, a few miles from Ryerson Station State Park and a leisurely drive to the West Virginia panhandle. That deal with Evolution has worked well, and it’s far from expiring.
“We saw benefits with this,” said Chris Church, CNX director of completions and water. “There are big cost savings. Diesel has been more expensive (than natural gas), and we’re using our own gas.”
Indeed. This all-electric fleet, the company estimates, has reduced fuel costs by 80%; has increased fracking efficiency by 30%; requires less equipment and pump maintenance; and requires a 60% smaller footprint. That smaller footprint, CNX says, means the driller needs half as many workers on site.
The changeover to electric, the company claims, also makes for a more environmentally friendly and neighborly operation. There are fewer emissions with natural gas compared with diesel, truck traffic to and from a pad is reduced and – shhh! – the well pad is quieter. CNX estimates the decibel level with electric at about 85, while a conventional fleet is around 115.
Electric fracking may be new to the region, but it is gaining momentum. Range Resources, a top 10 producer nationally, has been testing a unit in recent months, completing trials at two pads. The Texas-based producer is now using them on a third site, the Ziolkowski Pad in Imperial, Allegheny County, where they will be deployed through the end of the year.
Range, with regional headquarters in Southpointe, is using a fleet from U.S. Well Services, the only company besides Evolution that is providing an all-electric unit.
Work on the second pad lasted three months, and company spokesman Mark Windle said during that time, “We saved over $1 million in fuel costs. Instead of diesel, we use natural gas we drill nearby.”
Dennis Degner, chief operator officer, is impressed with the fleet, saying during a third-quarter conference call that, “We see exciting potential with this technology.”
Hydraulic fracturing is not a new energy-producing initiative. Halliburton Co. fracked the first well in 1949, during the Truman administration. But the process has become commonplace, and it is dramatically different from the drilling of shallow wells long, long ago. Gas in wells in days of yore were stimulated with explosives and nitroglycerin.
By using an electric fleet, Church said CNX has completed work on 12 wells since May. But even though this technology will likely become more popular in the natural gas industry, he warns that “electric fleets are not for everybody. Companies doing 10 wells a year will probably not get much benefit. These are more for full-time producers like CNX and Range” – the two regional operators following that pursuit.