Traditional vertical drilling for gas and oil could lessen in favor of state-of-the-art horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing of rock layers, perhaps as shallow as 1,000 feet underground and not far from drinking water aquifers.
At least one Western Pennsylvania company is fracking rock about 3,000 feet down in Westmoreland County, slurping oil out of formations about half as deep as the heavily tapped, gas-rich Marcellus shale.
If the technique catches on — industry experts suggest shallow fracking is inevitable — it could be a boon to smaller drillers. It could reshape state law and increase concern about the safety of drinking water, experts say.
“What we’re doing is unique. It is amazing. … It is groundbreaking,” said Ben Wallace, chief operating officer at Penneco Oil Co. in Delmont. “Traditional well drilling doesn’t work under (today’s) price structure. It’s done.”
The basic technology behind shallow fracking has been available for at least 20 years — coal mines use it to vent methane — but it’s more affordable than before. Improved technology helped lower the cost, and the state’s shale gas boom attracted dozens of drilling support companies to the region, providing a much larger available workforce for fracking.
Only a few companies are contemplating it, but the opportunity could be a lifeline for small, family-owned companies that have worked in Pennsylvania for generations, said Louis D. D’Amico, executive director of the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association.