Q: What role is URS playing in Marcellus Shale drilling?
A: In Pennsylvania, we have just over 2,500 people. At any given time, there may be 500 people working on projects related to Marcellus.
(We offer) the capability to look at environmental resources, complete permitting. On the engineering side, we can essentially design any of the components that go into the development of a well pad, the water needs, the water treatment needs, the pipelines to get the gas to the market. We now have the ability to offer construction, primarily on pipelines, and construction management, to make sure the quality and safety is in place.
Knowing Pennsylvania, knowing the past history, such as the mining problems, we know the conditions. We wanted to align ourselves with clients that were sensitive to environmental issues.
Once a potential drilling site is identified, what is the process that occurs before that site is producing natural gas?
The actual exploration companies do a lot of the upfront work in terms of the geological investigations, confirming their drilling depth.
Once they've identified that it's viable, then there's the land acquisition or lease process. We help them by looking at critical factors, environmental and cultural resources. We'll help them with site selection and access roads. That process may end up in changing the location to avoid impacts to natural and cultural resources.
Once the boundaries of the development site are set, we have to put erosion and sediment control in place to eliminate any potential runoff from getting into streams or wetlands. Then there's the need to identify a water source, which is done a variety of ways. There's the issue of handling the flowback water, which is highly regulated. We have to obtain all the permits. Then there is the development of access roads.
Who is your average client?
(Our client list) includes some of the largest oil and gas exploration companies down to some that are more local or regional. We're doing work with private industry and some communities.
As this process is maturing, this gas is getting out to the market, and we're trying to help those clients get cleaner, cheaper gas or convert to gas.
Our company is diverse enough that we can follow and sometimes lead the evolution from the source to the actual customer.
What types of skills and training are needed in this industry? What jobs are in demand?
All disciplines of engineering — civil, mechanical, geotechnical, Earth sciences, geology, environmental science — there's a high demand for those people to make sure the resources are protected.
We see high demand for surveyors. Right now, we're seeing the highest demand on the construction side. There's some basic construction needs, but there's also some specialty trade, especially with building compression stations. Inspectors that have experience with construction projects, with environmental issues, there's a pretty high demand for those people.
What are some of the remaining challenges before the full potential of the Marcellus Shale formation is realized?
I think one of the biggest challenges is really the price of natural gas. The pace of production is set by that.
In the eastern side of (Pennsylvania), it's a dryer gas; in the western part, it's a wetter gas. When the price goes up, the wetter gas is more popular. Production companies are following the wetter gas, moving to Ohio and North Dakota. That will ebb and flow with the gas price.
As we have more gas getting into the pipelines in Pennsylvania, then we're going to need to develop innovation to change the way the vehicles are built and to develop infrastructure to develop gas to put into vehicles.
Issues still revolve around fracking. When that began, the regulations hadn't quite caught up to the industry, and there were real events that impacted the environment and some that were overblown, resulting in negative perceptions. Regulations caught up with the industry, and the industry has been very good, I think, in complying.
Mark Pennell, 48, lives in Carlisle with his wife and two sons. An outdoor enthusiast, he met his wife while hiking the Appalachian Trail in 1999.
“We met in North Carolina, and five months later when we got to Maine, we got married,” he said.
He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geology from Miami University of Ohio and Ohio University, respectively.