PENN TWP — XTO Energy on Thursday afternoon provided about 100 municipal and educational officials a sneak peak at its new natural gas liquids recovery facility on Hicks Road.
The plant on a 15-acre pad behind Diehl Toyota is a key piece of infrastructure for XTO and a boost for Butler County's economy. It also is XTO's first plant of its kind in the region.
Tim McIlwain, who leads the company's Appalachian Division, said the facility is designed to separate other profitable substances from the natural gas that XTO is extracting by drilling into the Marcellus and Utica shale rock formations thousands of feet underneath much of southern Butler County.
It will be fed by XTO's completed and planned gas wells through two compressor facilities, one in Forward Township and the other in Jefferson Township. It is designed to treat up to 125 million cubic feet of gas per day, and the site is planned to accommodate a second plant and other equipment in the future.
Companywide, XTO produces about 4 billion cubic feet of gas per day from shale plays across the country, McIlwain said, adding XTO will ramp up production in the county once the plant goes online this spring.
According to Aaron Tucker, supervisor of natural gas operations for XTO's Appalachian region, once an electric line to the plant is completed in May, the plant will go online, becoming a 24-hour-a-day, year-round operation that will employ 15 full-time workers.
Tucker, who is the project engineer who designed the facility, led walking tours Thursday.
He explained the facility works by separating hydrocarbon liquids through a condensing process that raises and lowers the pressure and temperature of the extracted gas through several stages.
This is necessary because the gas extracted from shale underneath much of the county is “rich” or “wet” gas, meaning while it is higher in Btu value, the compounds also must be separated.
During the separation process, those liquids — propane, butane and ethane — drop out of the extracted gas, leaving methane, which is the gas used to heat homes, produce electricity, run ovens and stoves, and increasingly, fuel vehicles.
Tucker said XTO will sell the liquids as a raw product to MarkWest Energy Partners, a leading transporter of natural gas liquids based in Denver.
For now, Tucker said tanker trucks are taking the separated liquids to a plant in Houston, Washington County. However, MarkWest will eventually connect a pipeline to the Penn Township plant.
Putting the plant's overall production in perspective, Tucker said it can process enough gas in a day to fuel 225,000 homes.
He also highlighted the economic impacts of the company's $60 million investment in the plant.
During the peak of the construction process, which started in November 2011 and finished around December 2012, more than 170 people worked on site each day, he said.
While the project's major contractors were headquartered more regionally, Tucker said XTO worked with numerous local businesses to supply materials and services.
“The best part? The list of vendors and contractors doesn't stop there,” he said. “We're going to keep bringing in vendors and contractors to do the maintenance and to supply the consumable items throughout the life of this plant.”
XTO is a subsidiary of global energy giant ExxonMobil. It is based in Fort Worth, Texas, but has its regional headquarters just south of Cranberry Township in Marshall Township, Allegheny County.