Frack again? That is the question drillers are asking in the Marcellus

In 2009, Consol Energy Inc. drilled half a dozen natural gas wells in Center Township, Greene County, that weren't its best producers.

The Cecil-based energy company was a novice in the Marcellus Shale at the time, as were most companies tapping the largest and then newest shale play in the United States.

With five years of experience and leaps in data and technology under its belt, Consol decided to give those old wells another go this year. It hired oil and gas services companyHalliburton, which re-entered the horizontal wells, shot more holes through them, fracked those holes and forced out far more gas than the wells ever produced before.

When Consol revealed its success to investors last month, it said 200 other wells have refracking potential and it is evaluating starting a program to move those forward.

Nearly every oil and gas company that uses Texas-based Halliburton to frack its Marcellus wells has been curious about refracking, said Halliburton’s global technical sales and marketing manager, Billy Smith. 

Fracking technology has advanced dramatically in the past several years, and refracking a well is a way to bring it up the learning curve, he said.

“I’m sure every company has some [wells] in the back of their head that they’d like to get a second shot at,” said Mark McCasland, engineering solutions manager for Baker Hughes, another Texas-based oil and gas service company. “But there is a bit of wait and see.”

Consol is the only energy business that has made the details of its Marcellus refracking efforts public, but others have dabbled as well.

Downtown-based EQT Corp. has refracked two wells in Greene County and is currently looking at the results.

“We’re reviewing other candidates and, depending on the outcome of the two we have refrac(k)ed, will decide if it’s a practice we’ll continue,” said EQT spokeswoman Linda Robertson.

Halliburton has refracked “a few dozen” wells in the Marcellus so far, Mr. Smith said.

Refracking could mean going into a well and restimulating existing fractures by pumping in more frack water and sand, or it could mean making new fractures in between existing ones.

Baker Hughes hasn’t done any refrack jobs in the Marcellus yet but it is marketing the option to its clients here, Mr. McCasland said. The cost to refrack is likely to be similar to the initial frack job, he said. 

“The savings is in, of course, not having to drill the well, not having to build another pad,” he said. “If you can re-energize this well and get something close to initial production coming in again... this gives you a second shot.”

Consol’s president and CEO Nick DeIuliis told analysts last month that it might cost between $1.8 million and $2.2 million for each refrack, but Halliburton warned that the price can vary widely depending on the job.

While producers now are focusing their capital budgets on drilling new wells, “it’s just going to take a few successes” to get them thinking about how far a dollar can go in a refrack, Mr. Smith said.

Halliburton sees refracking as a rapidly growing and promising part of its business and has designed a product that plugs existing fractures, then biodegrades over time, allowing a refrack to reach its potential without interference.

Typically, oil and gas operators ask about refracking to deal with underperforming wells — what Mr. Smith refers to as “low hanging fruit” for the technique. Technical studies have shown that as many as 40 percent of the perforations shot through a horizontal well weren’t properly stimulated the first time around and aren’t contributing to the production of the well.

But healthy, productive wells are candidates as well, Mr. Smith said. Refracking may become a regular part of the well production cycle process as shale plays mature.

Texas-based Seneca Resources, which drills in the Marcellus in central and northeastern Pennsylvania, said it might evaluate refracking once its wells get to a certain age.

“The general thought/hypothesis is that after about five to eight years of production from a horizontal shale well,” you might think about refracking, said Seneca’s spokesman Rob Boulware.

In fact, operators in slightly older shale plays already have experimented with refracking programs to boost the dwindling production from aging wells. BP ran such a program in the Woodford Shale in Oklahoma. Devon Energy refracked at least 13 wells in the Barnett Shale in Texas.

Refracking has potential for all shale wells, Mr. McCasland said, and Baker Hughes is now designing new wells with refracking in mind down the road. That could involve setting larger-diameter pipe that would allow more maneuverability upon reentry years later.

In Pennsylvania, the practice is still in its infancy, and it’s unclear what that will mean for landowners who host well pads on their properties.

Operators in the state aren’t required to get a permit to refrack a well, but they must notify the Department of Environmental Protection at least 24 hours before the process begins. After the refrack is done, the company must submit a well completion report.

There is no easy way to find out how many companies have refracked wells or how many are planning to, but if Halliburton’s pipeline is any indication, the practice is likely to expand.

Anya Litvak: or 412-263-1455.

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