Ohio's shale boom about to get much louder

billions invested in 'midstream projects' to get gas, liquids to market

Akron Beacon JournalJanuary 7, 2013 

KENSINGTON, Ohio — A shale boom is under way in Ohio. Land has been leased. Nearly 190 wells have been drilled. Natural gas, oil and other liquids are being pumped from the liquid-rich Utica formation deep underground.

Now Ohio is looking at billions of dollars invested in processing plants, pipelines and compression facilities — called "midstream projects" — to get those commodities to market.

Seven processing-separation plants for natural gas plus liquids and four pipeline networks are under construction in eastern Ohio. Their price tag, in excess of $7.2 billion, does not include interim facilities also starting to pop up in Ohio.

"You can bring (gas and oil) out of the ground, but it doesn't do you any good until you can move it and get it processed and get it where it's needed," Terry Fleming, executive director of the Ohio Petroleum Council, said. "Midstream is the key. It is critical. ... It's an infrastructure issue. You can only pull as much out of the ground as you can transport and process.

"What's happening in Ohio is big — and it's going to get bigger."

In addition to the new plants, eastern Ohio is expected to see an additional $5 billion in new pipeline projects in the next few years because the state's existing network is too old and too small to handle the volume of gas and liquids that energy companies are tapping.

Getting such infrastructure built has made energy companies a little antsy because their wells increasingly are ready for production.

Some of the biggest drillers in Ohio, including Chesapeake Energy, Gulfport Energy and EV Energy Partners, have commented in recent earnings reports that delays in completing the new midstream facilities are keeping Ohio shale development from moving forward.

Production will ramp up sharply in Ohio this year, however, as midstream pipelines and processing plants are completed, Chesapeake CEO Aubrey McClendon said.

Gulfport CEO James D. Palm said getting pipeline right-of-way from landowners in Ohio has been slow and difficult and has delayed work by its partners.

That's the main reason only 45 wells in Ohio are in full production. Another 143 wells are drilled but not hooked up to pipelines and processing facilities.

Acquiring leases and drilling wells is known as the "upstream" end of the gas and oil business. Midstream operations begin with pipelines, processing plants and fractionation facilities that separate liquids from dry gas.

Payrolls for Ohio midstream companies are expected to top $1 billion annually by 2014, according to industry estimates.

Ohio's natural gas — mostly methane — requires more processing because it contains such natural gas liquids as butane, ethane and propane that are all lucrative commodities after they have been removed from the natural gas. They are liquids below ground but are gaseous at the surface and are mixed with the natural gas.

Other impurities also must be removed from the natural gas before it can be pumped into large transmission pipelines.

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