April 24, 2013 - Part II of a two-part story on oil and gas exploration from start to finish.
Oil and gas extraction
Once oil and gas companies Jordan Exploration or their partners West Bay Exploration have identified where they want to drill using seismic testing, and they have drilled into the earth and placed steel piping, they are ready to extract minerals.
The oil and gas won't be lying in wait in a cavern, however. They are caught in the spaces in porous rock. Most of the rock that West Bay produces oil from in Oakland County is called dolomite.
West Bay's Vice President Pat Gibson compares the way the oil is dispersed in the rock to a jar full of marbles. "All these marbles are touching each other, but there are all these porous spaces between them," Gibson explained. "The oil is in those porous spaces."
Until they are ready to extract oil, water is kept in the steel pipe beneath the ground to hold the minerals back. Once the water is removed, "the oil comes out from between those air spaces first, and it keeps moving," he said.
"That's why it takes years to produce it because you're not sucking it out of a vacuum in a cave. It takes time for that oil to work its way through the porous spaces and into the well," Gibson pointed out.
Typically, when a well is producing, it takes between 15 to 20 years for all of the minerals to be removed. If an area yields more oil and gas, the company would petition the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to drill another well in order to extract more minerals.
The maximum amount of oil they can produce from a well in a day is 200 barrels in a 40-acre unit. "Part of the reason for that is if you produce it too quickly you can damage the reservoir and leave a lot of oil behind," Gibson noted.
According to Jordan Exploration Vice President Ben Brower, if oil is produced it is put into a tank at the well location. When a tanker truck arrives from a refinery in Ohio or Canada to collect the oil, Jordan sells it. "We sell the oil on location," said Brower. Once the oil is sold to the refinery and taken from the site in a tanker truck, it is no longer Jordan Exploration's responsibility.
Fracking or horizontal hydraulic fracturing is a process of using millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals to fracture rock and release oil and gas. In the contract Independence Township is negotiating with Jordan Development, fracking is prohibited.
It's because Jordan and West Bay are extracting oil and gas from dolomite that Gibson says fracking isn't necessary. "You wouldn't ever frack dolomite; that would be counterproductive," Gibson said. "In these reservoirs that we are looking at [in Oakland County], you would damage the reservoir if you were to use hydraulic fracturing," he added.
It's for this reason that Jordan and West Bay "have offered anyone who has asked for it in our leases, a clause that says we guarantee them we are not going to hydraulic fracture."
Gibson said even if another company wanted to use fracking in areas the township has leased, they couldn't because of the contract. "It's a legal contract between whomever owns the lease and the land owner, not just the first person who signed the lease," he said.
"If eight years from now, we were to have sold that lease to somebody else because we were unsuccessful in what we were looking for, they are still bound to that no hydraulic fracturing" provision, he emphasized.
While fracking permits have not been issued in Oakland County, the DEQ has allowed fracking in Hillsdale and Ionia counties.
What's left behind?
When Jordan and West Bay have produced all the oil and gas they can, they will restore private property based on the contract they've signed with the landowner. For instance, a property owner can include provisions in their lease requiring replanting of any vegetation that was cleared in the drilling process.
The oil and gas company will remove all of their equipment, except what's beneath the surface.
"In some cases, we would come back and remove some of the [steel] casing...because there is some scrap value available to it, but the rest is going to stay in the hole," Gibson said.
"We fill the entire hole full of cement; we dig it down to six or eight feet; we cut all the steel off. Then after we've filled it with cement, we weld a steel plate onto the top of it."
Gibson notes that about 300 wells have been drilled in Oakland County, which means there are hundreds of leftover cemented steel casings reaching thousands of miles under the ground that have been left behind by oil and gas companies.
Oil and gas regulations
Jack Lanigan works at the Southeast Michigan DEQ Office, and he has inspected Jordan and West Bay's well site on the corner of Teggerdine and White Lake Roads.
He assures residents that they should feel safe when it comes to oil and gas exploration in our area.
"There's a plastic liner underneath almost the entire site," Lanigan explained. "On top of that, they've put a gravel pad. So, if they did have a spill it's going to be in the gravel, and it's going to be contained underneath by a plastic liner."
In addition, he said, "Jordan and West Bay are very, very meticulous about grading the sites so that there is a slope on the liner that goes toward the well location." If there were a spill, the grading would ensure any liquids would drain into a containment area called a "cellar" around the wellhead.
When it comes to transferring oil from tanks to trucks, there are containers in place to catch spills too.
"The loading and offloading places where they connect their hoses, if they are not within a secondary containment, they have catch basins underneath them that contain at least two times the volumes of the hoses being used," Lanigan said. "We inspect those every time we're out there," he added.
When it comes to the worse case scenario of a major spill or break, "the operator is responsible to notify us immediately," Lanigan stated. "I would probably be out there within hours to find out what's going on, to get a boots on the ground view and make sure they have the resources they need to take care of it."
The DEQ doesn't clean up the spill. Instead, it is the oil and gas company's responsibility to take care of the mess. Lanigan notes, "We enforce the clean up standards."
Major spills and leaks are rare occurrences, he assures. "It's very much the exception rather than the rule."
On the other hand, minor spills are more common. Lanigan said, "I'm overseeing right now at least five clean up sites where they have had problems. There have been spills from brine or from crude oil onto the ground or into the groundwater where we are actively having people clean it up." He pointed out that they were minor spills. One of which was in Oakland County, but Lanigan did not disclose its specific location.
Clarkston News reporter