MARIETTA — The signs start popping up along a road called Righteous Ridge, not too far away Waterford, an unincorporated community along the Muskingum River in southeastern Ohio.
There’s no room for interpretation on their meaning.
“No Oilfield Traffic” shouts one in all capital letters. Another, “All Oilfield Traffic,” includes an arrow pointing the way to one of Washington County’s first fracking sites, a horizontal well that was midway through its initial drilling one day last month when a group of schoolteachers stopped by for a tour.
Follow the winding road (at 15 mph if you’re behind the wheel of some oilfield equipment, so reads another sign) and you’ll pass houses and trailers and cornfields and eventually come to a hill topped by a drilling rig.
According to state records, PDC Energy Inc. snagged the permit for the site, named “Neill 1-H,” in late May. It’s one of 750-plus horizontal permits on the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ cumulative permit list. A total of 374 or so of that total have been drilled to date.
Less than a month after gaining the state’s approval to move forward, drillers were more than a mile into the ground near Waterford.
“I think it’s that way, I’m not positive,” Jeff Salen, director of U.S. drilling operations for PDC Energy, joked as he pointed away from the rig, indicating the direction that a lateral leg would go, once drillers are far into the ground vertically and make their horizontal turn.
He’s not really confused. Drilling is a high-tech business that relies on directional tools to bore miles into the ground. On this day, Cedrick St. Julian, a Louisiana man, was preparing specialty drilling equipment at the site. What looks like a stack of pipe is actually precision equipment that St. Julian and others can track and steer as it goes deeper into the earth.
“He knows within 3 feet exactly where he is, and we’re down 15,000 feet,” Salen said.
The tall rig stands out at present, but the site won’t look anything like this once the well is completed. Rhonda Reda, executive director of the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program, said the rig will be taken away, and what’s left will be about the size of an average dining room, with a hole that starts out at a little more than two feet and shrinks as it gets deeper into the ground to about 5.5 inches.
Drilling such a well isn’t cheap. Salen said it can cost $8 million-plus to dig and prepare each one - “probably $75,000-$100,000 a day” at ever rig. And not all end up in production.
Once drilled and fracked, PDC will test the Washington County well to determine its potential production. If the engineers are satisfied, they may come back and build two more wells off of the same pad.
“They don’t know economically how these wells are going to do,” Salen said. “... If it’s not economical to produce, I may not be back.”
The process takes months. After drilling is done, the site will be fracked, with swimming pools of fresh water and chemicals pumped into shale formations deep underground.
St. Julian holds a degree in petroleum engineering from Louisiana State University. Many fracking-related jobs require specialty training and advanced education.
That’s part of the reason the industry has relied on out-of-state workers for drilling jobs. Workers get used to their crews, and they travel with them from state to state and site to site, Salen said.
But there are jobs for Ohioans, too. There are 20-30 people at the Waterford site at any given time, working 12-hour shifts, round-the-lock. There are also diesel mechanics and water haulers and any number of subcontractors.
“There’s local kids that come out here and have an opportunity to go to work...” Salen said. “On any given day, there’s 50-60 different groups of people out here.”
There was a big stack of orange-capped pipe on the lot at Ken Miller Supply Inc. in Marietta one day last month.
Over the screech of cutting equipment, manager Scott Craycraft explained that in years past, it would take weeks to sell it all.
Asked how long the current stack would last, Craycraft replied, “Tomorrow morning. And then there’s another going out Saturday.”
The company has locations in five states, with several sites in Ohio, including Wooster and Marietta. They provide pipe and equipment to Ohio’s growing shale oilfields to carry oil and gas from the formation to market.
“We wouldn’t find the oil and gas in the ground if you stuck our nose in it,” Craycraft joked. “That’s not our side. We don’t know a shale rock from a pet rock. ... But once it is found, that’s where we set in.”
Miller Inc.’s yard is filled with pipe and gas production units and sand traps, all used in horizontal drilling into Marcellus and Utica shale. The company cuts grooves into steel casing used in oil and gas wells, with couplings threading long sections together. There’s a well in West Virginia that includes more than 18,000 feet of Miller casing. Another customer is considering one pad with 16 different directional wells reaching out in all directions.
It can take seven or eight truckloads of pipe for each fracked well. Half a dozen years ago, that pipe was harder to get, much of it coming into Miller’s Marietta location by barge on the Ohio River, often from other countries. Today, domestic steel is outpacing imports, Craycraft said.
“There’s pipe here from Youngstown, there’s pipe here from Cincinnati,” he said, adding, “It’s high dollar, very good jobs for people.”
Training and Jobs
Robert Chase is chairman of the petroleum engineering and geology department at Marietta College, one of about 18 such programs in the country.
There are 400 students enrolled currently, and “We’ve had over 400 students apply to get into the program apply to get into the program the last two years,” Chase said.
The school accepts about 90 a year. The benefits of holding a degree are obvious - sample job opportunities with starting salaries averaging $100,000-plus a year and signing bonuses of $15,000-$20,000.
“The jobs are phenomenal,” Chase said, noting that 39 of 42 graduates this year had jobs walking out the door. “We had 33 companies on campus recruiting those students this year.”
That’s part of the reason the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program took a busload of several dozen middle school teachers to oil and gas sites in the Marietta area one day last month, providing them with classroom experiments and curriculum ideas to get students thinking about careers at earlier ages.
“Just imagine if you can engage them and start thinking about their futures and their opportunities,” said Charlie Dixon, work force and safety administrator at the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program.
Vicky Wilson, a middle school science teacher from Austintown who is working on a master’s degree in environmental science, said the tour proved helpful, providing practical ways to help youngsters understand the career potential in Ohio’s oilfields.
“There’s welders and there’s truckers and there’s diesel mechanics,” added Ed Laubacher, who teaches at Lake High School in North Canton.
Laubacher also wants his students to weigh the pros and cons of fracking.
“There’s so many myths about this,” he said.
Marc Kovac is the Dix Capital Bureau Chief. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at OhioCapitalBlog.