Justin Welker is an avowed angler. He enjoys fishing and used to work with fish.
Welker earned a degree from California University of Pennsylvania, with a concentration in fisheries management. As a recently minted alum, he hoped to secure a job in the his home state – Welker grew up around Meadville – but landed a position in North Carolina as a striped bass biologist.
So he knows water. And when he was able to return to his roots years later, Welker was well suited for the position of water operations manager for Range Resources, a Texas-based oil and natural gas exploration and production company with regional headquarters at Southpointe.
“This is a very thirsty operation,” he said during a recent work break at the Ziolkowski Pad in Imperial, Allegheny County.
This is a frac site, where Range – like many gas producers – employs hydraulic fracturing to access the gas. The process entails drilling a mile deep and launching a slurry of water, sand and chemicals down into a horizontal well, to break up the rock below and release gas hydrocarbons to the surface.
Range is operating at Ziolkowski with an all-electric frac fleet, a fairly new innovation that reduces costs and is more environmentally friendly. Natural gas accessed at a well pad is used to run this machinery instead of diesel fuel, which is more hazardous and more expensive.
The company, a top 10 gas producer nationally, is testing the unit, owned by U.S. Well Services, but has been pleased with results at the three pads where the fleet has been used. Range said the electric fleet saved $1.2 million in fuel costs at each of the first two completed pads.
In May, CNX Corp. became the first oil and gas firm in the Appalachian Basin to go all-electric at a frac site, and is still using Evolution Well Services’ fleet.
Fracking doesn’t require water water everywhere, but it takes a formidable amount.
“We use 36 million barrels a year,” Welker said. That breaks down to an estimated 6 million to 7 million from Pennsylvania American Water Co., for which Range pays a fee; about 12 million barrels of water recycled from its operations; and about 18 million barrels from a surface water source such as the Ohio River.
Much of the H2O has to be transported to a well pad by truck, but certainly not all. Range, according to spokesman Mark Windle, “pioneered large-scale water recycling for shale gas development,” and began doing that in Washington County in 2009. The company said it reuses all water it used previously on a well site.
Range also is in a water-sharing program with about a dozen other regional operators, and recycles everything those companies use. The result, Windle said, is a 153% water recycle rate.
“We recycle our 8 million barrels and everyone else’s water,” Welker said. “That’s why we have a rate of 150%.”
Windle said the company also uses above-ground water transfer lines and off-site centralized water storage facilities, which last year enabled Range to slash more than 100,000 truck trips within Pennsylvania. Range, he added has a 24/7 water logistics coordination center ensures water trucking efficiency.
Water management efforts, according to Windle, saved the company $10 million in 2018.
Fracking requires more than water, though, to access the bountiful gas 5,000 or so feet down. Sand, tan and extremely fine, is delivered in bins holding up to 42,000 pounds of the substance. The bins are stacked in rows on a well pad, removed by truck when empty.
“This sand system is new to the industry,” said Derek Yanchak, completions manager at the Ziolkowski Pad, where Range has been operating for a little more than two weeks. “The way it’s delivered eliminates dust. Cleaning on location is minimal.”
Yanchak said sand is picked up at various locations, including Eighty Four, Neville Island and Mingo Junction, Ohio. Sand, water and a small dose of hydrochloric acid are mixed in a large blender and ultimately shot down the pipe to the laterals, which in some instances are three to five miles long. The laterals had been broken into stages beforehand by perforating guns.
Enter the slurry mix and rising hydrocarbons are the desired end result.
Fracking is a meticulous process, and a thirsty one as well.