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Oil exploration from the beginning

West Bay Exploration Vice President Pat Gibson. (click for larger version)
April 17, 2013 - Part I of a two-part story on oil and gas exploration from start to finish.


Clarkston News Staff Writer

The lease Jordan Development offered Independence Township is "non developmental," which means no drilling or mineral storage will occur on their property. The same may not be true of leases signed between Jordan and individual landowners, however.

To get to the minerals beneath 98 acres of Independence Township, a well will be drilled on privately owned land nearby. The Clarkston News spoke with Jordan's partner West Bay Exploration to find out what you can expect if there's a drilling operation on your property.

A peek at the earth's subsurface

West Bay's Vice President Pat Gibson said his oil and gas company has been working with Jordan Development for ten years. "Each of us owns our proportionate share of the well" on Teggerdine and White Lake Roads, he said.

Before any drilling occurs, companies like Jordan and West Bay will be very familiar with the area. In particular, they're knowledgeable about what's below the ground.

According to Gibson, "We're very science driven." The process starts with West Bay's geologists who research "where other wells were drilled historically" by checking the state's "records of those wells, and they can go back and look at the rock types that were drilled through."

After the geologist has done some subsurface mapping, they'll point to particular sections the oil and gas company may want to explore. "Then, we program the seismic crew to come out and shoot," Gibson said.

This seismic survey is done using sensors about the size of tent stakes placed in the ground along a street. "The straighter the road, the better for the quality of data," Gibson pointed out, which is why West Bay will be running their vibratory tractor along M-15 in the coming months.

"We've run hundreds of thousands of miles of road seismic in Michigan." Gibson assures, "it is not something that's detrimental to the roads or to pictures hanging on people's walls in their living room."

After the test, Gibson will see a 3D image from the seismic test that allows him to look up to 9,000 feet down, but he won't get a glimpse of any prehistoric bones or primitive burial grounds. "It really is a bunch of squiggly lines," he described.

Those squiggles will "show you where the highs and lows are" in the Niagaran Reef, ancient coral formations that are now porous rock about 4,400 to 4,600 feet beneath Michigan's surface, Gibson explained. "The Niagaran Reef didn't necessarily create the oil, but it became the trap and the reservoir to hold the oil," he added.

If the seismic map reveals where oil and gas might be trapped, Gibson takes into account what has been found in these parts of Michigan in the past.

"If you're in an area where reefs did produce hydrocarbons, more than likely the reef that you find will. If you're in an area where reefs were drilled and they contained salt water, you're less likely to drill," he explained.

Once West Bay and Jordan think there's a good chance of finding valuable minerals captured in the holey rock underground, "we would start leasing fairly intensely," Gibson said. "Because we start leasing, it is not a sure thing we are going to drill there," he notes. "It just means we have a promising idea that we want to continue exploring."

Although the technology used for such seismic studies is more advanced than ever before, the only way to know for certain if there are valuable minerals beneath the surface is to drill.

Reaching black gold

It isn't always the oil and gas company that does the drilling.

In the case of West Bay and Jordan, "all of those services are provided by contractor companies," Gibson pointed out. "There are specialized contractor companies whether it be for the actual drilling rig itself or the cement company that does the cementing of the casing."

Once a contractor is hired, "the very first piece of pipe that goes in is called the conductor," Gibson said. "It looks like a steel culvert," and is driven into the ground about 15 to 20 feet. "That's going through top soil, sand, clay, and gravel, and that's just used to center the rest of the drilling that's going to go on and give us a stable circle to start from."

After the conductor pipe is in place, "we drill a larger hole, we set steel casing, we drill a bit smaller hole, we set more steel casing, fill it with concrete, and we keep doing this up to five times . . . all the way to the surface, all the way to the bottom," said Gibson. The wells they hope to drill in Independence Township will reach about 5100 feet.

"The drill bit itself is three sets of teeth that crush the rock in little tiny pieces," Gibson stated. The drill bit gets smaller and smaller the deeper they bore into the ground, and it moves at about eight minutes per foot. "It's a six and a half inch bit by the time we're at the bottom."

The main types of rock they're drilling through are limestone, dolomite, salt, and shale. If they reach layers of granite, they call it "the basement" because they can't break through it.

"In addition to those things crushing and grinding up the rock at the end, we're injecting water down the middle of the pipe, and it's coming out over the top of those bits; that's what flushes all the rock that's been broken up and brings it back to the surface," Gibson explained.

At this point, the force driving the pipe down into the earth is gravity. "By the time you're down there five thousand feet, even though you're using a six inch pipe, a mile of six inch pipe is some pretty heavy pipe, so we don't really have to pull down on it or push on it," Gibson said.

They don't just drill straight down, however. To reach the oil and gas below Independence Township, they'll need to drill horizontally.

"When we're directionally drilling, we put a piece of equipment near the drill bit; it's called a mud motor," he said. The mud motor uses some of the fluid they're pumping down into the pipe to push the drill bit. "Instead of going straight down, it's putting just a little flex onto the drill bit."

The process of creating that slope and bending the steel pipe takes a while. "If we're going to take a 90 degree turn that could take several thousand feet."

Gibson said no chemicals are used in the process, which requires about 10,000 gallons of water. They use freshwater, salt water, Bentonite mud, and hydrochloric acid to clean the pipe when they're finished. Surface water isn't used. Instead, the company may drill a water well near their operation or trucks will bring water to the drilling location.

Next week, Part II on mineral extraction and DEQ regulations.

Clarkston News reporter
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