Shale Gas Support Services

MarkWest, a leading provider of midstream services in the natural gas industry, has experienced substantial growth since its inception. The majority of their recent growth is associated with the development of natural gas supplies in emerging plays like the Marcellus Shale, where MarkWest is now the largest processor of natural gas.

MarkWest’s Liberty Segment in the Marcellus play—which will ultimately include several facilities in southwestern Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and northern West Virginia— currently provides fully-integrated natural gas midstream services including gathering, processing, fractionation, storage, and marketing operations.

CEC partnered with MarkWest to provide professional services for projects in the Liberty Segment beginning in 2008 when MarkWest laid its operational foundation in the region. At the time, the Liberty Segment was processing roughly 40 million cubic feet per day. By the end of 2013, the processing capacity will have increased to more than 1.7 billion cubic feet per day. (That’s enough to fill 1,700 40-foot tanker trucks. When lined up, they would span more than 226 football fields or nearly 13 miles.)

CEC’s involvement began with the development of the first site in the Liberty Segment—the Houston facility, located in Washington County, Pennsylvania. CEC provided grading plans, geotechnical investigations, wetland and stream delineations, surveying, and erosion and sedimentation control (E&S) plans and permitting, opening the door for MarkWest to prepare for planned expansions and plant diversification in sync with the growth of the natural gas industry in the region.

One such diversification was a major milestone for MarkWest’s Liberty Segment. The commencement of fractionation operations at Houston in the fall of 2011 meant that valuable, marketable products like butane and propane could be separated from the natural gas on site instead of sending the natural gas hours away for separation elsewhere. Once the fractionation unit was up and running, however, these products were in need of a more reliable distribution network to get them to market. At the time, distribution could only be done through truck loading and hauling. As volumes increased, so too did the demand for a more efficient, cost-effective transportation system, one that could also reduce the impact on local road networks from heavy truck traffic. The answer? Rail.

On August 10 of this year, the company started loading and moving rail cars in and out of a rail yard built in Westland, two miles from the Houston plant. The large rail yard can store 200 cars and load 12 at a time, with plans to load 24 in the future. Cars then traverse a 4.5-mile stretch of new rail to the Wheeling & Lake Erie main line for broad distribution. “It was a monumental day for MarkWest in the Marcellus play,” said Joe Lex, a senior project manager whose focus is on all Houston operations. “To be a major midstream company, you have to be able to move large volumes of liquid, and the new rail facility allows us to do that.” Purified products now get to market faster and more efficiently—to Canada, the East Coast, overseas, and eventually to the South.

The Houston facility is now the largest natural gas liquids fractionation, storage, and marketing complex in the northeast United States, and it enables MarkWest to accommodate the full midstream process in this region. But MarkWest was looking to do more than accommodate. New developments in the Liberty Segment will add three large deethanizer units to strip ethane out of the raw natural gas. By mid-2013, when new regulations take effect, the Houston site already will have one unit up and running, removing ethane before the natural gas enters distribution.

“By increasing the capabilities of the Houston site, MarkWest is able to pass through time and cost savings to our customers,” says Robert McHale, MarkWest’s Environmental Compliance Coordinator.

CEC’s goals were simply to enable MarkWest to get down to business in the Marcellus Shale and to do whatever it takes to keep MarkWest competitive. “We look to CEC as a partner in finding the best sites and the best way to utilize the land we have at Houston or at greenfields we’re currently developing in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio,” said Lex. “Previously, there was not always a great deal of thought about where to put a plant, but now CEC helps us to really optimize the siting of a facility. CEC helps us move things forward. That’s a partnership, in my mind.”