The Challenges of Pipeline Construction at the Marcellus Shale
One of the most important plays in the US Oil & Gas industry is the Marcellus Shale Formation. This expansive formation is estimated to contain the second largest supply of natural gas in the world. It is also sitting right on top of a very energy hungry market. As such it seems obvious that tapping into this rich source of natural gas is one of the main objectives in the oil industry. However, before the Marcellus Shale Formation can reach its full production potential it must first build up an infrastructure of pipelines to transport the natural gas once it has been recovered. Unfortunately there are several challenges facing pipeline construction in the Marcellus region which must be overcome.
The current network of pipelines in the Marcellus Shale region is currently insufficient to handle the full production potential that the area actually contains. More pipelines need to be added before production can completely ramp up otherwise the infrastructure would be overwhelmed.
Part of the reason for this delay in pipeline production is due to the fact that initially the Marcellus formation’s abundance of natural gas was significantly underestimated. In addition advances in drilling technology, especially in the areas of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have resulted in a much better output for new wells. While the old, small infrastructure of pipelines may have been able to handle a low number of wells with a limited production, they are not able to handle the greatly increased number of wells, especially with the higher production.
Gaining Right of Way
One of the biggest challenges in pipeline construction is simply gaining the right of way or easement to use a section of a landowner’s land for the pipeline. Interstate pipelines that transport oil and gas between states are generally covered by eminent domain, which means that the landowners cannot stop the pipelines from being built. However, the infrastructure within the state itself connecting various wells or gathering the natural gas to the main lines are not covered by eminent domain. Therefore the pipeline operator must make individual agreements and gain right of way with every landowner along the route.
There can be a very high cost associated with gaining the right of way and it will vary considerably depending on the specific location of the land. In rural areas it might be relatively inexpensive such as a few dollars per foot of pipe. However, in urban areas it could get much more expensive and might even go as high as $100 per foot. There may also be signing bonuses given to the landowners. All of this is before the actual cost of construction and maintenance for the pipeline itself.
Besides the cost of paying for the right of way itself there is also often quite a bit of negotiation that goes into the process. There is also the chance that a landowner might refuse to grant the right of way at all, or there could be a breakdown in negotiations between the pipeline operator and the landowner resulting in the deal falling through.
Another challenge to pipeline construction is the heavy regulation that goes along with the process. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) regulates many aspects of interstate pipelines. They can even determine the route used and the maximum allowable price rates. Generally the FERC bases decisions about construction of the pipelines on the environmental and ecological impact the pipeline would have, while decisions about price rates tend to relate more to the welfare of consumers and other economic factors. Other federal departments that often have an impact on pipeline regulation include:
- The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) – DOT and PHMSA oversee regulation relating to the safety of the natural gas pipelines.
- The U.S. Department of Interior Minerals Management Service (MMS) – The MMS regulates leases for offshore pipeline easement.
- The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) – OSHA makes regulations based on worker safety and general working conditions.
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – The EPA, in conjunction with state environmental protection agencies regulate the construction and operation of pipelines as they relate to environmental issues.
In addition to these federal regulatory agencies, there has been a number of specific legislation heavily impacting the construction and operation of pipelines. Some of the major laws and acts pipelines must carefully observe include the following:
- National Environmental Policy Act of 1969
- Federal Water Pollution Control Act (“Clean Water Act”)
- Coastal Zone Management Act
- Endangered Species Act
- Clean Air Act
- National Historic Preservation Act
- The Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2002
- The Pipeline Inspection, Protection, Enforcement, and Safety Act of 2006
Not only does pipeline construction have to take these federal agencies and laws into consideration, but it must also follow state regulation and local zoning laws. While this regulation is very important and although pipeline operators willingly comply with it, it adds quite a bit to the logistical concerns and requires extra planning and oversight. Finding a way to comply with all of these regulations while still making the project cost effective and efficient can significantly slow down pipeline construction, especially in the densely populated Marcellus Shale region.
Physical Terrain Challenges in the Marcellus Shale Region
The Northeastern United States where the Marcellus Shale Formation is located, is notorious for its harsh weather and uneven terrain. This leads to a number of problems in terms of pipeline construction. Let’s look at some of the most common challenges faced in this area:
Weather – In addition to standard weather problems such as a heat, rain, or cold temperatures, the states in the Marcellus area frequently experience such major events as snow storms or even hurricanes. Workers struggle to continue their labor during these major weather incidents, but there is also a significant potential for machinery, tools, materials, and the pipeline itself to be damaged as a result of these storms.
Rocky Terrain – The Marcellus Shale Formation underlies much of the Appalachian Basin. This in turn means that quite a bit of the area is very mountainous and often the ground is extremely rocky. This hard, rocky terrain is much more difficult to dig and excavate than regular soil. It can also prove treacherous and difficult to access for the machinery and workers who need to clear the area.
Clearing Land – Similar to the issue discussed above with rocky terrain, much of the land that is being dug out for the pipeline will first need to be cleared. Often this can mean removing rocks and boulders, but it could also require leveling trees and digging up roots. In some mountainous areas both tasks may be required. This considerably adds to the labor and time involved in the pipeline construction project, as well as the cost and resources needed.
Elevation Changes – Once again relating largely to the mountainous terrain, there are a lot of elevation changes which occur in the Marcellus Shale area. Even with more simple, less drastic hills, there are more complications involved in digging pipelines through changing elevations. This is because it becomes more difficult to maintain a steady depth and the logistics of getting the equipment into place can be much more difficult.
As briefly hinted at in the regulations section of this article, there are quite a few geopolitical considerations to pipeline construction. Pipelines travel across county lines and even cross state lines. This results in the requirement of going through extra channels and getting approval from multiple political entities. In some cases the regulations will also be different in various counties or states which may require the pipeline operator to alter their approach. One of the biggest geopolitical considerations is also the varying tax laws from state to state.
All together the construction of pipelines for the Marcellus Shale is a very labor intensive, complicated, and often slow-moving process. There a huge number of hurdles and obstacles that must be overcome before the Marcellus Shale Formation has a completely established infrastructure that can meet its production potential. However, despite these challenges the pipeline companies are up to the task and are working continuously to bring the dream of an energy-sufficient Northeastern United States into reality.