About Air and Water

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Development offers a lesson in low-impact drilling

By MIKE LEE - Star-Telegram staff writer - Sun., Nov. 18, 2007
There are 80 natural gas wells on the Walsh Ranch property, and not a rusty tank battery in sight. Malcolm Louden says that's a system the city of Fort Worth should consider copying as it decides how to deal with the wastewater from natural gas wells.

The ranch covers 7,000 acres, an area larger than the city of Benbrook, in Tarrant and Parker counties just west of Fort Worth. It was owned by the late oilman F. Howard Walsh and is being developed into a mixed-use community. The first homes are expected to be built by 2009, and the ranch will eventually become part of the city, said Louden, president of Walsh Ranches.

XTO Energy and Walsh Ranches have built the system for handling gas, salt water and other byproducts over the past two years.

Louden, who worked for F. Howard Walsh for decades, required XTO to space its wells closely, reducing the size of drilling pads, and to use "closed-loop" drilling rigs that don't need open pits to store drilling mud.

Each well is served by three pipes: one to remove natural gas, one to remove salt water and one to return natural gas to the well, where it is used for re-stimulation. Instead of the large tank batteries seen near most gas wells, the Walsh Ranch is dotted with horizontal separators, which are about the size of a household propane tank and blend in better with the terrain.

The gas and salt water are piped to a handling area at the far southwest corner of the ranch. The compressor stations, a necessity in the Barnett Shale, are in a warehouse-type building protected by a foot of sound insulation. A normal compressor station sounds like a locomotive, but two people can talk outside this building without raising their voices.

The saltwater piping eliminates the need for disposal trucks, Louden said.

"Without it, we'd have 80 trucks a day on the ranch," he said. "These trucks are dangerous as hell. The first time they have an accident, they're going to have a real problem with it running in the storm sewers."

Gas wells that serve adjacent land owned by the Aledo school district and Weatherford College will soon be hooked up to the system, Louden said.

Louden has things that many landowners don't: clout, a huge expanse of undeveloped land and a good relationship with his energy company.

"XTO has been great," he said.

But he said the system could be copied in Fort Worth: Water could be piped to a central disposal well, or taken to a railroad terminal and loaded on tanker cars.

It's common for gas companies to work together in situations when two of them have acquired mineral rights in the same area.

"If Chesapeake owns 80 percent of the mineral rights and XTO owns 20 percent, they split the costs. In essence, they're partners," he said. "I don't see why they can't go in together on something like this and cut down on all these trucks."

But is it feasible on a large scale?

"Why isn't it?" Louden asked.

Read more in the Fort Worth Star Telegram

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