Why the need for processing facilities?

With the announcement of a new pipeline processing facility in eastern Mahoning County, I was curious as to where these new natural-gas transmission lines would lead and how, or if, the product will reach our homes.

A recent pipeline explosion in West Virginia, leveling five homes, injuring two, and destroying part of Interstate 77 inspired my curiosity.

Through my research, I discovered an intricate network of pipelines and processing centers throughout North America.

This network gathers well product and, eventually, the natural-gas portion of it is delivered to our homes for heating, cooking and other purposes.

So why not just drill a well and hook it up to our homes? There are a number of answers to that question.

Before the 1930s, natural gas often was delivered directly from extraction wells to homes, schools and businesses via pipelines.

But just like the oil and natural-gas industry learned in the Mahoning Valley, injection wells can cause earthquakes.

The industry learned the hard way that odorless natural gas can prove extremely deadly in the case of leaks.

During the height of the Great Depression, one of the richest school districts in the U.S. was the New London School District, of New London, Texas. This wealth was created by a 1930 oil find. In 1932, the school district built a $1 million school with proceeds from this industry.

In fact, the school’s football team was the first stadium in the U.S. with electric lights.

Rather than install a school boiler system, however, they installed 72 gas heaters. In 1937, to save money, the school board canceled its natural-gas contract and instead installed a tap to be supplied by the “run-off” natural gas of nearby oil wells.

On March 18, 1937, a shop teacher turned on an electric sander that triggered a spark and thus an explosion that resulted in more than 400 student and faculty deaths and demolished the school.

To date, this is the worst school catastrophe in the U.S. and is the reason the natural-gas industry now mixes Thiols into its product before delivering it to end consumers.

Thiols are organic compounds that produce a garlic-like odor that can be detected.

In the case of the liquid-rich Utica Shale, located in Ohio, the need to separate chemical compounds present in the incoming well product is crucial to product delivery.

Several byproducts of “associated” gas are extracted, such as crude, methane, propane and butane.

These natural-gas processing plants act as traffic signals within the pipeline network. The science of cryogenics studies how chemical compounds separate under extreme cold and pressure.

The processing plant being constructed in eastern Mahoning County will be cryogenic based.

The seasonal nature of natural-gas supply and demand also causes natural gas to be stored up underground until needed.

There are three types of natural-gas storage. They are depleted fields, aquifers and salt caverns. Western New York, western Pennsylvania, the northern half of West Virginia and the eastern half of Ohio are dotted with depleted reservoir fields.

Upon announcing its presence in the Mahoning Valley, British Petroleum indicated the need to increase the gas transmission infrastructure in eastern Ohio. This indicates that larger and more frequently occurring gas lines and processing plants will be needed by the industry.

It is clear that once again, as this industry expands, careful study is needed to mitigate the risk brought on by expansion.

With recent pipeline explosions in West Virginia and Allentown, Pa., I hope we get more “economic” and less “boom” in this part of the coming economic boom.

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