An Intern’s Guide to Understanding Upstreaming

Since the technology boom of the 1990s the world around us has been continually changing in a whirlwind of new communication outlets, pocket-sized gadgets, and industrial advancements. Accordingly, the economies of both the United States and Pennsylvania have revolutionized. Technological growth has fostered an economic environment suitable for the emergence of new markets and greater access to more resources. The energy industry is a critical example of this trend. Within the past twenty years advancements in vertical drilling and hydraulic fracturing have provided access to previously untouched shale gas reserves. In Pennsylvania the expanding shale gas market is generating job growth and positively impacting related industries. Due to the impact shale gas will have on Pennsylvania’s economy, it is critical to know the mechanisms within the market. The developments within this market would indeed not be so remarkable if it was marked by simplicity. Thus, the primary focus of this post is to promote a greater understanding of the shale gas industry.

Before exploring the inner workings of this market it is necessary to more closely examine the process of upstreaming. This procedure refers to the techniques of extracting shale natural gas from the ground through drilling. Shale gas itself is a natural gas that is formed in compact shale rock formations. Previously it has been inaccessible due to the density of the rock. Recent technological advancements have provided the opportunity to tap into reserves through the processes of vertical drilling and hydraulic fracking. Horizontal drilling is replacing the previous, inefficient method of vertical drilling. Previously, using a vertical drilling, numerous wells would be drilled into a given area of land. In this method, each well also had its own padsite above the ground. Horizontal drilling reduces the number of padsites to one. Beneath the padsite is a long, vertical pipe that extends into multiple wells, which transmit the shale gas from the ground, back to the central pipe, and then to the wellhead at the surface. The innovation of horizontal drilling decreases the topical space used for the drilling space, which allows for greater efficiency and less harm to the environment.

Vertical Drilling and Horizontal Drilling Courtesy of: Ohio Oil and Gas Association

The second component of the technological advances at the forefront of the shale gas industry is the process of hydraulic fracturing. This method facilitates the movement of shale natural gas into the wells and then its return to the surface. In order for the gas to escape the highly dense rock, it is necessary to create breaks. Hydraulic fracturing is the process of creating these breaks artificially. Instead of relying on inconsistencies in the rock formations themselves, water, sand, and a diluted mixture of chemicals are used to create fractures. The natural gas then escapes the formation and is directed through the wells and pipe back to the wellhead.

The energy industry is indispensable to Pennsylvania’s economy. The growing market for shale gas represents a larger transition in the area of alternative fuel sources. For Pennsylvanians, and even for participants in the larger economy as a whole, it is critical to understand the market that is transforming the way we think about domestic energy. Subsequent posts will provide further information regarding shale gas. They will detail the processes of midstreaming and downstreaming; the effect of shale gas on the chemical industry; and the STEM initiatives should be a part of companies’ workforce development plans.

Meghan Gary, Bravo Group Communications Intern, Pittsburgh


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