Liquids-separating plants are expanding to handle more ethane, butane, propane from Ohio’s Utica shale

Source: Akron Beacon Journal

A labyrinth of pipes, valves and tanks of all sizes smothers the hillside above an expansive rail yard.

Covering 594 acres of former cornfields — nearly twice the area of the village it abuts in northern Harrison County — the new gas-processing plant stretches more than a mile long and half-mile wide, dwarfing everything around it.

And “The Beast” is getting bigger.

That’s the term Texas-based Momentum Midstream spokesman Eric Mize lovingly uses to describe his company’s new and growing liquids-separating complex on the edge of Scio, a tiny village with 760 residents and one traffic signal in eastern Ohio.

Mize also refers to the sprawling facility as “Big Boy.”

“It is a big plant — a very big plant — and far bigger than other plants around here. … What’s really amazing is that we got it up and running in six months,” he said. “No one believed that we could do that.”

The facility, called the Harrison Hub, is part of a $1.2 billion, three-plant complex. A so-called fractionation plant, it is designed to separate the natural gas liquids that come from Ohio’s Utica shale, then store them and ship them.

Processing 90,000 barrels of liquids per day — volume that soon will grow again — the plant is one of two liquids-separating facilities in eastern Ohio. It is added evidence that Ohio’s shale boom is real.

Such liquids can produce revenue of $60 or more per barrel, making them very lucrative for energy companies. Liquids from Ohio’s drilling fields are expected to produce $450 million in revenue in 2014 — an amount separate from the revenue derived from natural gas and oil, the other products of shale drilling.

The other Ohio liquids-processing plant was built by MarkWest Energy Partners in Jewett, also in Harrison County, with 60,000 barrels per day of capacity. That Hopedale Complex will have an additional 78,000 barrels available by late 2014.

Construction on the 1.2-mile-long Scio complex began in January 2013. It was up and running six months later and officially was dedicated in October.

It functions like a giant tea kettle or distillery, with a series of 198-foot-high towers that use oil to heat the liquids. Hydrocarbon vapors are boiled off and the liquids are separated into individual components as temperatures climb as high as 450 degrees.

Part of the process also includes cooling the liquids with an air conditioning-like system before reheating.

Liquids boil off from the lightest (ethane) to the heaviest (butane). Natural gasoline is left after three-step processing.

Mize said the liquids typically spend a couple of hours within the plant being separated.

The liquids arrive at the plant as a clear, light substance with the density of water. They produce what Mize called “a slightly organic smell.” Others might call it a modest, funky scent.

Earlier in the processing, natural gas was removed from the liquids through chilling at the plant at Kensington, in southern Columbiana County. The liquids then are sent 35 miles south by pipeline to Scio.

The Harrison Hub includes a rail yard with 10 tracks to carry tankers holding up to 32,000 gallons of liquids to market.

An automated system, built and operated by Rail Link Inc., part of the Genesee & Wyoming Inc. railroad, is designed to fill 16 tanker rail cars in 90 minutes, Mize said.

The mile-long rail yard will fill 150 to 200 tankers per day and send them to market via the Ohio Central Railroad. That could total 10,000 rail tank cars per year.

Interestingly, the rail yard was built with steel rail ties, not wood, and steel clips that made construction easier and quicker.

The liquids also can be moved by nearby pipelines and by trucks.

Where the products go depends on the driller that owns them. The companies involved in the Harrison Hub are known as midstream operations and are paid for the processing and shipping.

The Scio complex includes a wide array of storage tanks.

When completed, there will be four propane storage tanks 110 feet high on the grounds, each capable of holding 8 million gallons. There are white butane storage tanks, each capable of storing 2.1 million gallons.

There are two tanks, each capable of holding up to 2 million gallons of natural gasoline. Those tanks include a safety feature to spray foam in case of an accident.

There are 20 bullet tanks near the rail yard. Each can hold up to 123,500 gallons of propane or butane. They sit on a rack 20 feet in the air to avoid on-the-ground collisions with equipment.

The facility is designed to store up to 870,000 barrels. Typically, the product is stored for three or four days.

Safety equipment and safety systems are everywhere.

At peak construction, up to 700 workers built the Harrison Hub, Mize said. Currently, 400 construction workers are toiling at the plant. It will have 60 to 70 full-time workers.

Mize estimated that 50 percent to 60 percent of the jobs have gone to Ohioans.