The promise of the Marcellus gas “gold rush” may be vast, but the payoff won’t actually occur until the gas is distributed. And that requires the timely and safe completion of the natural gas collection and transmission pipeline network.

The oil pipeline construction contractors who want to build that distribution system are coming to Marcellus Shale fields from across the United States and Canada. In many instances, those contractors are unfamiliar with the geology of the 60 million-acre Marcellus Shale regions in Pennsylvania and other areas in the Appalachian basin.

That unfamiliarity can lead to problems. Although the majority of the pipelines will be laid in using the open-cut method, there are crossings that must be installed under obstructions such as roadways, waterways and environmentally sensitive areas. Unfamiliarity with the local geology and regulatory requirements could lead to problems that result in wasted time, misspent budgets and loss of revenues.

“There are a number of groups with vested interests in the Marcellus gas picture,” says Vince Rice, president and CEO of Aaron Enterprises, York, Pa., a specialist in trenchless pipeline technologies such as boring and directional drilling used by utilities and a variety of other industries. “From their point of view, completion of pipelines, as with wells, is an urgent matter. These investors include property owners, developers, extractors, gas companies, state and local governments and local economies. Everyone who is involved in this natural gas ‘gold rush’ wants to see it pay off as soon as possible.”

Rice adds that unforeseen construction difficulties or snafus with the documentation required by local governing regulatory bodies can hamper pipeline construction progress. Such delays will perturb investors at every level, essentially impeding returns on investments and also the infusion of revenue into communities where people are more than ready for this economic windfall.

At the same time, it is likely that the natural gas “gold rush” that is taking place in the Marcellus fields will put a high demand on specialists and subcontractors who have the experience, equipment, engineering staff and familiarity with local agency requirements to perform the more demanding services required by pipeline crossings that require directional drilling, rock boring and other methods of trenchless technology.

During 2010, for example, some areas of the country experienced a spike in infrastructure and other construction work due to the federal government’s stimulus package. As a result, even large contractors with diverse capabilities have turned to directional drilling and boring specialists as subcontractors to help them expedite projects.

Henkels & McCoy, one of the largest privately-held engineering, network development and construction firms in the United States, hired Aaron Enterprises to install a 260-ft span of 42-in. casings under wetlands. In another instance, the firm employed Aaron to do a 24-in. rock-bore under a Pennsylvania highway. Both types of projects are likely to occur frequently throughout the Marcellus fields.

A Portfolio of Capabilities Needed


For a subcontractor to undertake specialty pipeline construction projects, such as obstructed pipeline rights of way, at crossings, a portfolio of equipment, expertise, experience and geological knowledge is required. A combination of rock boring, tunneling, pipe jacking, directional drilling and other horizontal drilling methods may be required for some situations. For example, directional drilling is used instead of opening a pit up and boring in a straight line. The drill is located on the surface and enters the ground at a predefined angle and then electronically steered and located such that you can avoid obstacles, go beneath rivers, or buildings and then come back up to the surface on the opposite side of that obstruction. A ramming head is then attached where you enlarge the drilled opening to accommodate a pipe as you pull it back through the drilled hole.

“You can’t always anticipate what you are going to run into,” says Rice, whose firm has more than 35 years experience in dealing with the terrains in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland. “In some instances, dealing with a combination of geological formations that will require the use of multiple technologies. Even pipeline construction contractors who have the necessary equipment may not want to get bogged down with this kind of work.”

Rice adds that in the case of Aaron Enterprises, the firm has found it necessary to have its own shop to service and repair equipment, so that downtime doesn’t cause unnecessary delays. The firm even employs engineers and equipment fabrication staff so that in cases where unique, specialized tools are required, they can be designed and fabricated quickly.

Value-Added Services


Rice adds that value-added services, such as consulting on documentation to meet the requirements of local officials, is another way the local subcontractor specialist can help the pipeline contractors move construction along on schedule.

“The pipeline contractors need the ability to work with local officials, such as the department of transportation officials, and also must have the ability to produce documentation,” he explains. “These gas pipeline jobs often require detailed plans to be submitted prior to undertaking the pipeline construction. They have to show that they know what they’re doing, and often times they go through a submittal process whereby the pipeline contractor is required to submit detailed plans that spell out how you’re going to deal with environmental issues such as water runoff and drilling fluid disposal.”

Rice says that a local, supporting contractor with engineering services can enable the pipeline contractor to handle that process and satisfy the documentation requirements in an accurate and timely manner.
Safety is another important issue that should not be overlooked. “Safety is always the number one priority, says Merrill Anders, director of gas and water of the eastern region at Henkels & McCoy. “Any subcontractor who works with us must adhere to our stringent safety standards. For example, when Aaron Enterprises has worked on our projects, they represent us. They already have an excellent safety program, so we joined it to our own.”

All about Time


“In the end, it’s all about time,” Rice says. “The pipeline contractors we work with like to keep moving. They often lay 30 miles of pipeline in 30 days or less. It’s the job of drilling and boring specialists like us to help them keep that pace . . . which also helps keep them profitable and their investors satisfied.”

Founded in 1976, Aaron Enterprises is a specialty contractor practicing the various disciplines of trenchless technology, including traditional horizontal earth auger boring, pipe jacking, pipe ramming, rock boring, hand tunneling, directional drilling, plus the development of custom-developed tools and systems to meet non-standard horizontal boring and tunneling situations.

Ed Sullivan is a freelance writer, based in Hermosa Beach, Calif.