Energy company WPX hits natural-gas jackpot

Jeff Kirtland and Susan Alvillar of WPX Energy visit an exploratory Niobrara shale well the company calls “The Beast” because of its huge early natural gas production. Behind them, a gas-powered rig drills another WPX well into the same formation northwest of Parachute.



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Jeff Kirtland and Susan Alvillar of WPX Energy visit an exploratory Niobrara shale well the company calls “The Beast” because of its huge early natural gas production. Behind them, a gas-powered rig drills another WPX well into the same formation northwest of Parachute.

Brad Moss, district production manager for WPX Energy, reads a meter indicating a Niobrara shale natural gas well outside Parachute is producing 4.3 million cubic feet a day. WPX has taken to calling the exploratory well “The Beast” due to its prodigious early production, which has totaled 1.7 billion cubic feet in its first 190 days — more than most area wells produce in decades.



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Brad Moss, district production manager for WPX Energy, reads a meter indicating a Niobrara shale natural gas well outside Parachute is producing 4.3 million cubic feet a day. WPX has taken to calling the exploratory well “The Beast” due to its prodigious early production, which has totaled 1.7 billion cubic feet in its first 190 days — more than most area wells produce in decades.

PARACHUTE—Just up-valley from an exploratory well WPX Energy has taken to calling “The Beast,” the company is hoping to clone that monster natural-gas producer.

A new, natural-gas-powered Aztec rig it has begun putting to use was deployed northwest of Parachute last month to drill another horizontal well into the Niobrara shale formation, where The Beast has produced 1.7 billion cubic feet of natural gas in six months.

That’s what one of the many Mesaverde sandstone formation wells already drilled in western Colorado’s Piceance Basin might produce in 30 years, said Scott Brady, WPX’s district drilling manager.

“And we’ve already done that in 190 days,” he said.

Brady spoke with awe in his voice, a tone that is heard throughout the Tulsa-based company about The Beast, including at its top levels.

“It is absolutely a major discovery,” WPX president and chief executive officer Ralph A. Hill says on a video on the company’s website.

The company has said if its early results can be replicated, it holds the potential to more than double WPX’s companywide 18 trillion cubic feet equivalent of estimated total proved, probable and possible reserves, possibly expanding those reserves by 20 to 30 tcf due to its large lease position of 180,000 acres in the Piceance Basin. Nationwide gas consumption in 2011 was 24 tcf.

WPX now thinks this gusher of a well, but of natural gas rather than oil, could produce 7 billion to 10 billion cubic feet over its lifetime. It already is the top-producing well in the Niobrara shale, which is part of the larger Mancos shale formation, the company says. The shale WPX targeted is some 50 to 75 feet thick where the well reached it 10,000 feet underground. The well turned sideways to follow the Niobrara sideways for some 5,000 feet in the pay zone where it was hydraulically fractured.

It’s one of dozens of wells energy companies have begun drilling locally in the Mancos shale, which lies below the Mesaverde sandstone, as they test the prospects of developing it just as companies have developed other shale formations across the country.

After drilling The Beast last year, WPX has drilled two more exploratory wells into the Niobrara so far this year in the Parachute area, including the one the Aztec rig was working on recently. It plans two more this year, and 10 to 12 next year, as it seeks to better understand the extent of the resource across its holdings.

The well it was drilling last month is 2,200 feet away from The Beast. Brady said one reason is to determine how to space wells to maximize production without having them so close they’re reaching the same gas.

The Beast’s initial well pressure was high—7,300 pounds per square inch—and the one WPX was drilling nearby it was fitted with a blowout preventer rated at 10,000 psi. That’s twice what’s normal for wells in the area and about as high as is ever used in onshore wells, Brady said. The preventers are used during drilling to shut in a well if problems arise.

A separator unit on the pad for one Niobrara well is as big as one next to it designed to handle four Mesaverde wells, reflecting the vast difference in production levels.

WPX continues to try to better understand how much such wells might cost to drill. There’s typically a higher cost associated with the highly prolific shale wells being drilled in other places. Drilling deep, making a 90-degree and then doing substantial fracturing in the long horizontal stretch adds up. WPX has said it wants to get its Niobrara shale drilling-and-completion costs down to $6 million or $7 million per well. That’s far more than its typical Mesaverde wells, but the company has indicated it might be willing to spend even more than $7 million on a well if the reserves are higher than expected.

For companies such as WPX that now develop gas from the Mesaverde sandstone in a workman-like, systematic manner, the foray into deeper shale shifts the focus to the exploration part of their exploration and production business.

“It’s a new frontier, we’re calling it,” WPX spokeswoman Susan Alvillar said.

She said the company is entering “a whole new era” in the Piceance Basin that is thrilling to employees.

Said Brady, “Drilling guys get excited because that’s a whole new aspect to your job.”



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