MOUNDSVILLE - Throughout the Upper Ohio Valley, Williams Energy, MarkWest Energy, Blue Racer Midstream and M3 Midstream have already committed to build more than $9 billion worth of Marcellus and Utica shale natural gas processing infrastructure.
And at least that much more in gas processing plants could be needed in the coming years, industry leaders believe, leading the Upper Ohio Valley down a road that means new jobs and opportunities.
Williams spokeswoman Helen Humphreys said her company performed $1.64 billion worth of new construction in 2013, with plans to build $1.3 billion more this year, while MarkWest officials continue building in both Ohio and West Virginia.
The Williams Energy natural gas fractionator along the Ohio River south of Moundsville sits on a 162-acre site once occupied by the Olin Chemical plant. The Tulsa, Okla.-based company is spending $4.5 billion to process gas in Marshall County, as it also operates sites at Fort Beeler and Oak Grove.
"I see another five to 10 years of construction like this," said Keith Hughes, business manager at Ironworkers Local No. 549 in Wheeling. "It has been tremendous for our area and we appreciate all of the work we are getting."
Because the "wet" Marcellus and Utica shale gas contains natural gas liquids such as ethane, propane, butane, isobutane and pentane - in addition to the "dry" methane - the materials require processing and fractionation so that each item can be marketed individually.
According to www.naturalgas.org, "Fractionation works based on the different boiling points of the different hydrocarbons in the NGL stream. Essentially, fractionation occurs in stages consisting of the boiling off of hydrocarbons one by one."
In Marshall County, Tulsa, Okla.-based Williams Energy has three sites of operation: the Fort Beeler processing plant along U.S. 250 north of Cameron; the Oak Grove processing plant off Fork Ridge Road; and the Moundsville fractionation plant at the former Olin Chemical site along the Ohio River. While each of these sites are in some level of operation, the company continues building at each site, with most of these efforts now focused on the Oak Grove facility.
Once all projects are up and running, they will work as a cohesive unit to separate the liquid portions of the natural gas stream from the dry portions. Williams officials believe they will be able to process at least 2.5 billion cubic feet on natural gas per day.
In April 2012, Williams paid about $2.3 billion to acquire the Fort Beeler cryogenic processing plant - which can be seen along U.S. 250 between Moundsville and Cameron - and the other Marshall County operations of Caiman Energy. Williams is now in the midst of expanding with an additional $2.2 billion expenditure.
Natural gas is pumped via pipeline from well sites to Fort Beeler. Once on-site, the gas goes through several refining steps to strip the dry methane from wet gases. The methane is then pumped to an interstate pipeline to be sent to market as natural gas, while the butane, propane and pentanes are piped to the Moundsville fractionator for further processing.
MarkWest Energy has invested $2.2 billion into pipelines, processing and fractionation plants in the region. The fractionation plant at Hopedale served as the destination of the six "superloads" that made their way through Steubenville last year.
"There is plenty of gas to go around," said Greg Sullivan, area manager for MarkWest. "We probably have enough work here to expand for another five years."
At the Cadiz processing complex, MarkWest lowers the pressure of the gas stream to separate the gases. This strategy involves a turbo expander, which Sullivan called "the heart of the cryogenic process."
For MarkWest, the dry methane and the ethane will be removed from the gas stream at Cadiz. However, the propane, butane, isobutane and other heavier natural gas liquids flow via pipeline from Cadiz to the Hopedale fractionator for further separation.
On the West Virginia side of the Ohio River, MarkWest continues expanding its Majorsville complex in eastern Marshall County, as well as the Mobley facility in Wetzel County.
Though Dominion Resources originally developed the Natrium plant and the full-time workers at Natrium are considered Dominion employees, Blue Racer now officially owns the facility as part of a $1.5 billion deal between Dominion and Caiman Energy. The plant closed temporarily following a Sept. 21 fire that led to the evacuation of about 25 residents in the community of Kent.
Just before the Sept. 21 accident, Blue Racer officials announced plans to build an additional $800 million worth of processing infrastructure to service the northern West Virginia and eastern Ohio areas.
"Our goal is to continue to be the Utica's premier midstream company by providing superior customer service and the region's best opportunity to gather and process rich gas and market natural gas liquids," said Jack Lafield, chief executive officer of Blue Racer.
More than 1,700 construction workers built the now operational $900 million M3 Midstream natural gas processing complex that spans Harrison, Carroll and Columbiana counties in eastern Ohio.
"We are pleased to commission the first fully integrated natural gas processing and fractionation project in Ohio, and proud that these facilities have been built safely and in compliance with Ohio's environmental regulations," said M3 President and Chief Executive Officer Frank Tsuru.