Ohio's natural gas from Utica shale gets separated from liquids, purified at new processing plants

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

KENSINGTON: It took 11 months to build a cryogenic natural gas-processing plant in southern Columbiana County.

But the natural gas from Ohio’s nearby Utica shale wells zips through the sprawling state-of-the-art complex in perhaps five minutes.

Welcome to Utica East Ohio Buckeye Midstream’s Kensington complex off state Route 644.

Once a hilltop farm, the 60-acre complex is a maze of oversized pipes, valves, tanks and meters. It is an engineer’s wonderland. It is full of hustle and bustle, hundreds of workers, heavy construction equipment and, in places, ankle-deep mud where construction continues.

Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Director Scott Nally said after touring the facility: “I learned scale.”

Seeing the size of a plant like Kensington in person is a lot different than looking at plans on paper, he said.

The now-open processing plant is 1,000 feet long and is dominated by a 17-story stainless steel-alloy demethanizer tower, complete with a turbocharger to help compress natural gas.

The $400 million plant uses temperatures as low as 180 degrees below zero Fahrenheit to separate natural gas from liquids. The result is natural gas, or methane, that is purified and ready for the pipeline to be shipped to market.

The Kensington unit is at capacity, taking natural gas from about 100 Utica wells, mostly Chesapeake Energy wells in Carroll and surrounding counties.

The natural gas then ends up in two nearby pipelines, and the lucrative liquids removed from the natural gas are transported via a 24-inch high-pressure pipeline to a separate processing plant 35 miles away in Harrison County

Those liquids include ethane, which is turned to ethylene, the key ingredient in plastics, and butane and propane, which are other fuels.

Construction is ­underway on two plant additions at Kensington, and a fourth addition is on the drawing boards.

Drillers have been waiting impatiently for gas-processing plants and pipelines to be built in eastern Ohio to fully develop Ohio’s liquids-rich Utica shale. The dearth of processing capacity and pipelines to transport the natural gas drastically has slowed shale development across the region.

It is a vital but little-known step between drilling for natural gas and using that gas to heat homes in Northeast Ohio and elsewhere.

The first processing unit at Kensington began operations in late July. It was the first of the new processing plants to begin operations in Ohio. It can handle up to 200 million cubic feet of natural gas per day — enough to heat up to 3,000 houses for a year.

To date, 600 Utica wells have been drilled in Ohio and permits have been approved for 963 wells.

The Kensington facility is part of a $1.1 billion system of gas-processing plants (one in Columbiana and one in Carroll County), plus 63 miles of gas-gathering pipelines, a 35-mile line to transport natural gas liquids from Kensington to Scio in Harrison County and a fractionation plant in Scio to separate and ship the liquids.

The complex, when fully operational, will employ about 63 workers.

The project is the result of a three-way partnership involving Oklahoma-based Access Midstream, Texas-based M3 Midstream LLC and Texas-based EV Energy Partners LP.

­M3 Midstream and its parent company, Momentum, built and operate the facility. Access Midstream built the gas-gathering lines. EV Energy Partners provided ­financing.

The Leesville cryogenic plant in southern Carroll County is scheduled to begin operations next July.

The 17-story tower and the natural gas turbocharger that compresses the natural gas are the key pieces of equipment in the separation process at Kensington, said Grant Hammer of Momentum, the plant supervisor.

The tower is 6 feet in diameter with walls that are 2 inches thick. The turbocharger helps compress the gas and operates like turbochargers in sports cars.

Currently, the temperature atop the tower is about 140 degrees below zero, and at the bottom it is 165 degrees above zero. That forces the liquids to separate and drop away from the natural gas, Hammer explained.

The temperatures are lowered by reducing pressure from 900 to 260 pounds and with mechanical refrigeration that can lower temperatures by 30 degrees.

The gas arrives at the complex in Hanover Township via gas-gathering pipelines. It is metered, and ownership remains with the drilling companies, like Chesapeake Energy, that are sending the gas to Kensington.

After its arrival, the natural gas is pumped into large-diameter pipes to let sludges settle out, Hammer said.

The process also requires that water and carbon dioxide be removed from the natural gas early in the process, he said.

If the carbon dioxide were not removed, the cold temperatures would turn the gas into dry ice that would clog pipes.

At present, the ethane remains in the natural gas, Hammer said. A new process will be added at Kensington in December to remove the ethane.

The ethane boosts the heat content of the natural gas and forces the pipeline companies to blend the Kensington-processed natural gas with leaner natural gas from other sources to meet pipeline safety standards.

Ethane is a valuable by-product. It can be converted into ethylene, a key ingredient in plastics.

The emissions-free plant relies on five electric-powered 5,000-horsepower compressors.

The natural gas processed at Kensington is transported a few miles to one of two pipelines: a Dominion line and the Tennessee Pipeline to get shipped to market, said Momentum project manager Michael “Hondo” Hanagan.

The facility in Harrison County includes a fractionation plant to separate the liquids, a storage facility for 870,000 barrels of liquids and a rail yard for shipping the liquids. The fractionation plant can handle 45,000 barrels per day. With expansions, it will be capable of handling 135,000 barrels per day.

As many as 800 construction workers have toiled at Kensington, although that number is probably “a couple hundred now,” Momentum spokesman Baron John said.

Columbiana County Commissioner Jim Hoppel was very impressed by what he saw on the tour of the Kensington complex.

“It’s pretty amazing,” he said. “You just can’t believe what they’ve done. It’s quite an operation.”

Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or bdowning@thebeaconjournal.com.


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