Tour Offers Writers Education in Natural Gas (Updated)

During a two-day fact-finding trip this week, I learned a lot about Williams’ cutting-edge natural gas exploration and production efforts taking place in Western Colorado’s Piceance (pronounced “pee-ahnce”) Basin.  In this post, I’ll try to shed some light on those efforts and help you understand why they’re vitally important to our nation’s energy future in the midst of much uncertainty.

If you’re like many Americans, you don’t even know what natural gas really is or where it comes from.  In fact, you might not care about natural gas as long as your hot water heater sends hot water to your shower and your stove produces heat under your frying pan.

Based on the fact that you’ve read this far, I assume you’re still interested; therefore, I’ll start out by telling you what natural gas is.

The experts at Williams describe natural gas as being made up of hydrocarbon gases, primarily methane. It is usually found deep below the earth’s surface, often with deposits of oil, and is removed by wells that are drilled to access the petroleum deposits.

If you’re inclined to compare drilling for natural gas to using a straw to sip soda pop from a can, you’re sorely misguided.  In reality, extracting natural gas from Piceance Basin wells is more comparable to standing inside a freezer and trying to get frozen soda pop from a can that has no pop-top opening.  In both cases, you have to find a way to extract contents from an environment inside which it’s trapped — and do it without leaving a mess.

Note: There’s a lot more to drilling than meets the eye.  I won’t go into all of the technical details here, I’ll refer you to a web site where you will find an explanation of the nine steps involved in creating a drilling site like the one shown above for Williams’ Piceance Basin Rig #278.  After you check it out, come back here and resume reading.

Now that you’ve studied the basics, I’ll point out some of the operational factors that help to make Tulsa, Okla.-based Williams a leader in the field when it comes to both efficiency and environmental stewardship.

As you learned when you visited the link above, the process of drilling a well begins with establishing a drilling site or “pad” upon which the drilling rig and related equipment are positioned.  It takes Williams employees about two days to assemble a high-efficiency rig on site due to the fact that the rigs are modular in design.

After assembly is complete, it takes 14 to 15 days of round-the-clock effort to drill the average 7,000-feet-deep well in the Piceance Basin.

Staffing levels involved in the operation can range from 6 to 7 people all the way up to 40 people when simultaneous operations are taking place.

Incredibly, the application of techniques refined offshore — including the use of skids to move a drilling rig — enables Williams employees to drill as many as 22 wells from a single pad.  Moreover, they’re able to drill directionally through more than 2,500 feet of rock and hit a target 50 feet in diameter.  In my mind, that’s gotta be comparable to throwing a dart at a board 2 feet in diameter from 100 feet away while blindfolded and drunk [FYI: The Williams people were neither blindfolded nor drunk while drilling.].

Once the drill reaches the deepest level (a.k.a., “the floor”) of the natural gas deposit, the completion stage begins.  Click here to view an animation of the process.

As part of the completion stage, Williams tackles the process known as frac’ing (pronounced “frack-ing”) a bit differently than other companies.

Rather than set up frac’ing trucks at each drilling site, Williams uses centralized frac’ing facilities that employ a process the company developed by working closely with Halliburton’s oil field services unit during the past three years.  Today, as many as 170 wells can be serviced from one frac’ing location where upwards of 12,000 horsepower of pumping capacity mounted on six trucks.

The job of frac’ing includes pumping “mud” — a mixture of sand, water, friction reducer and water conditioner — through pipes to wells as far as 3 miles away.  At each well site, the mud is injected into the fractures deep within the hole to force natural gas up and out of the hole.

Two primary improvements related to this “dirty work” have earned Williams accolades for its environmental stewardship:

(1) The fact that truck traffic to and from the wells has been reduced substantially and the environmental impact of drilling operations has been slashed as a result of having to construct one centralized frac’ing location instead of dozens of stand-alone locations; and

(2) The fact that Williams pipes in and recycles most of the water is uses at both the drilling pads and the centralized frac’ing facilities.

After frac’ing, the gas is separated from the mixture before being dispatched via pipeline to Williams’ Cottonwood Creek Gas Processing Plant in Parachute for distribution to a nation full of people, the majority of whom have little or no idea how much hard work it took for them to receive it.

Full disclosure:  My trip to Colorado was sponsored and paid for by the American Petroleum Institute and hosted by Williams.
NOTE:  This is the second in a series of posts I’m writing about my April 14-15 trip to the Piceance Basin.  To ensure you receive all of the posts about my trip, click here to subscribe to this blog via RSS.

See also: Natural Gas Industry Deserves Second Look

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UPDATE 4/24/09: The folks at the API just posted a summary of the Piceance Basin media tour at their Energy Tomorrow blog.  It includes a lot of great photos as well as a list of media folks who attended the event.  Check it out here.

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