FRACKING: A Driller Gave Us This Up-Close Look At A Rig That's Tapping The Marcellus Shale

Fracking, Cabot Oil

Fracking remains a mysterious process to many.

It involves a lot of weird, arcane equipment. 

You can’t see it happening (since it occurs underground).

And it’s developed an air of danger around it, having been linked to water contamination, earthquakes and neutered farm animals. If you’ve been affected by it, you’re sometimes not allowed to talk about it.

But it’s been a boon to the American economy. Oil imports are plummeting. It’s boosting employment. And it’s reducing energy costs.

We’ve also argued it helped President Obama get reelected.

And some say it’s actually helping the environment by reducing emissions

Houston-based Cabot Oil and Gas recently agreed to give us a tour of their main outpost in Northeast Pennsylvania, in a sweetspot of the gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation, to see fracking up close. 

Cabot's regional office is about 10 minutes south of the town of Montrose in northeast Pennsylvania, near Scranton. It's remote country.

We arrived at the drilling site, this one called The Bray. All pads are protected by security, and visitors must sign in and out.

Here's a drilling pad nearing completion. This one's called The Bray. Even from afar, it's pretty breathtaking.

The drill bits are 30-feet long.

Up to 40 men from as many as 40 contractors are on the rig at any given time.

Here's a view of what the site looks like behind the rig. It's practically a small city.

The full site actually extends out hundreds of acres. These mulch-filled socks are used to catch water runoff and control erosion.

An up-close view.

This is called the choke manifold. Mud gets channeled through here.

When everything is hooked up, this pipe will take gas to a production facility.

Here is part of the path the pipeline will eventually take.

The Bray rig will end up drilling 10 wells at a rate of 20 days per well. This is all possible thanks to horizontal drilling.

Horizontal drilling has been around for decades, though it's been improved on over the years of course. But it wasn't economically viable until recently, as oil and gas prices rose.

Here's the drill bit used to drill horizontally, called a pilot. It's fitted with a GPS sensor.

A rig called a wire-line truck monitors the well's depth and direction via data from the pilot and other detection devices sent into the earth.

Once the horizontal drilling is completed, Cabot can begin hydraulic fracturing. The company declined to show us the fracking process in action, and it's true the good stuff happens underground. But this image provides a good idea of how it works — it's basically a gaggle of trucks pumping water down the well, which create fissures through which the gas will travel.

Here's an animated view of what's happening underground during the fracking stage.

After about two months of drilling, when all the enormous equipment is gone, you get this: a simple set of pipes. This is a natural gas well.

Each well is controlled by two separate gas production units (GPUs) — large green boxes that heat up and separate out the gas. The Cabot producing well site we visited, the Heitzenroder, has two producing wells.

Condensate from the wells separates out into these containers, called brine tanks.

These wells are currently in their peak production phase, which lasts up to four years. But they'll continue producing gas for decades.

Looking down from the well site, you can see the containers that were used to store frack fluid when this site was being drilled.

They hold 21,000 gallons. These are inactive and are awaiting use at the next site.

We'll leave you with this image capturing the two sides of the fracking-debate coin: while the process may intrude on the landscape, there really aren't that many people around.

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