Continued from page 2

One way companies are trying to win over the public is by talking more openly about the processes they use to extract natural gas and to deconstruct the mysteries of fracking.

Using the procedure, companies pump huge volumes of a water, sand and chemical mixture into the ground at tremendous pressure, shattering the rock that traps the gas. They work with subcontractors to set up water lines to and from the sites, a cheaper alternative to running thousands of tanker trucks back and forth to supply the millions of gallons needed for a single well.

Throughout the operation, layers of piping and concrete line the well, which is meant to keep the fracking fluid from contaminating vital water supplies.

The frack job, as insiders call it, is a round-the-clock operation, with 35 to 50 employees at the site day and night. Workers eat on site, with catered meals provided by their employer. They leave only to sleep.

At the heart of the entire operation is the frack van, filled with millions of dollars of technical equipment measuring pressure, depth and a multitude of other factors. Inside, Shawn Hodges and other employees keep an eye on everything.

“It’s a very small surface area [we’re drilling], but a lot of gas,” said Mr. Hodges, a completions-operations manager who has been in the industry for 25 years and has worked on more than 4,000 wells.

In the old days, drilling was purely vertical. While still profitable and effective, the vertical shafts could tap only a tiny potion of the field, requiring large numbers of rigs and huge swaths of land to exploit a find. With each rig, the risk of an accident increased.

Now, companies are able to incorporate horizontal drilling. After drilling the vertical well — typically about 6,500 feet down — operators can branch out horizontally, usually at a distance of about 3,000 feet but sometimes much farther. This allows companies to extract gas from a much larger area from a single well site, decreasing land needs and maximizing efficiency.

Range officials concede that the initial process is “noisy and dirty” but stress that it’s only temporary. A year after first putting the drill into the ground, land is nearly back to normal. Mr. Wolfe’s land, for example, has been restored, with the exception of the well pad, the leftovers from the drilling process that pump gas from the ground and into pipelines.

From those pipelines, the gas heads to market and is sold to homes and businesses in Ohio, Kentucky and many other states. Marcellus Shale companies say they will have one advantage over other fracking centers because of lower transportation costs to the densely populated Northeast and mid-Atlantic markets.

Manning the pumps

To run a safe, effective operation, companies such as Range need competent employees. Increasingly, the talent is homegrown.

At the Western Area Career and Technology Center in Canonsburg, not far from Washington, director Joseph Iannetti has instituted programs geared toward the natural gas industry.

Like Mr. Whalen, some adult students come from across the country to learn the skills needed for jobs that pay, on average, about $75,000 a year.

“From my research, we’ll walk out of here and have a job,” said Pat Champ, a quiet, out-of-work carpenter from Wisconsin who left the Badger State to find work in the natural gas industry. He sat inside the small classroom with two other students. The class is expected to grow along with the process.

Story Continues →