Technological advances change natural gas development

Technological advances have quickly and dramatically changed the way energy companies produce natural gas in Western Colorado.

Companies not only drill far more wells at a single location, but also extend those wells thousands of feet horizontally and in different directions. Production processes once conducted in succession now occur simultaneously so that as one well is started, another is completed.

Hydraulic fracturing operations that release gas from the concrete-like rock formations below the Piceance Basin also can be conducted remotely from sites miles away from wells, substantially reducing both the need to transport water and the resulting truck traffic.

What’s more, companies have developed ways to better manage and treat water used to produce natural gas, reusing and recycling water to reduce use and transportation.

The end result of these technological advances and others include increased production and decreased costs that allow companies to continue development in Western Colorado despite low natural gas prices. Moreover, that development occurs with less to disturbance to the landscape and neighboring communities.

“We have made a lot of strides,” said Doug Dennison, environmental and governmental affairs liaison with the Bill Barrett Corp.

Dennison was among three representatives from energy companies who discussed technological advances in the industry during a briefing hosted by the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce.

Jeff Balmer, team lead for the North Piceance for Encana Oil & Gas, said energy companies have substantially expanded the scope of natural gas drilling and production operations from a single location.

Fifty-two wells have been drilled from one pad, a number Balmer believes is unprecedented. “I don’t know of any place in the country like that. It’s remarkable.”

Companies not only drill more wells, but also drill wells in different directions, with wells extending up to 4,000 feet away from the surface location like spokes from the hub of a wheel.

Technological advances also allow companies to drill wells horizontally through rich reserves and increase production. One horizontal well can access the same amount of natural gas as six vertical wells, Balmer said. “The horizontal drilling revolution has landed in the Piceance Basin.”

At the same time, companies conduct simultaneous operations at one location, including drilling, fracturing and completion activities.

Jay Foreman, Piceance asset completions manager with Williams Production, discussed remote hydraulic fracturing techniques and the treatment of water used in the fracturing process.

The basic fracturing process itself hasn’t changed in 60 years, Foreman said. Water and sand are pumped into wells under high pressure to fracture rock formations and release natural gas.

What has changed, he said, is the way that process is carried out. Williams sometimes uses remote facilities and temporary pipelines to conduct fracturing operations on wells up to two miles away. One such operation serviced six pads and a total of 87 wells.

One of the benefits of remote fracturing is that water required for the process is transported through pipelines rather than on trucks, Foreman said. He estimated that over the past five years, the technique has eliminated 500,000 truck trips in the Piceance Basin. “Truck traffic is a big, big impact on our community.”

Companies also have developed new ways to treat the so-called “flowback” water that results from fracturing, Foreman said. Williams uses equipment that separates water, sand, natural gas and oil. Additional equipment captures and burns vapors that cause odor.

Dennison also addressed water management and treatment. He said pipelines, closed-loop drilling and other practices have reduced water use and transportation. He estimated that 60 percent to 80 percent of the water used for fracturing is now recycled and reused. “We have come a long way in how we handle water.”

While a number of what he called “low-tech” treatments successfully treat water, Dennison said the process hasn’t yet eliminated the need for some disposal.

In the case of water treatment, still more technological advances are required, he said. “There’s room for improvement.”