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Marketplace Morning Report

In shale country, a boom in quiet

Marketplace Contributor Mar 6, 2015
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Carroll County, in eastern Ohio, was the original bird’s-eye for Utica shale gas development in the state.  Trucks with Texas license plates now jam the roads alongside Amish buggies. Farmers are fixing up their houses as money from mineral leases rolls in.

But for Frank Brothers, the price is too high.

“As you can see, that’s what’s coming right at our door,” Brothers says, nearly yelling to be heard above the continuous, grating hum emanating from a nearby gas compressor station.

It’s something you’d expect to hear inside a factory, not in a residential urban neighborhood – and less in a rural township like this one.

But even though their house sits on 21 forested acres, the Brothers family has been cooped up indoors with the windows closed since last March. That’s when the energy company Blue Racer Midstream started the huge engines of its compressor station across the street. They’ve run pretty much 24/7 since.

“You’re hitting 87,” Brothers says, holding up a decibel meter at his front property line. It’s hard to have a conversation from just a few feet apart.

Compressors are needed about every 50 to 100 miles along pipelines to help move gas through them.

They’re always loud, but this situation is rare – energy companies do usually shield the neighbors. And that’s what’s pushing what you might call a “silent boom” accompanying the oil and gas bonanza – a boom in noise abatement. 

Companies say business took off with development of the Barnett Shale in the mid-to-late 2000s, as oil and gas companies were rushing to pull gold out of the ground under Fort Worth, Texas.

“Noise became a front-burner issue for them, because the sweet spot of the shale was literally underneath some of the more densely populated areas,” says Murray Stacy, vice president of Shreveport-based Sound Fighter Systems.

Stacy says energy companies improvised their own solutions at first, but soon realized they needed expert help. At the peak of Barnett development, 80 percent of Sound Fighters’ business came from the shale gas industry, he says. It’s still about 60 percent. 

The demand for noise control in the Utica and Marcellus shales drew Canadian company Noise Solutions to open a branch in western Pennsylvania.

“It was a growth of about 100 percent,” says Tyler Mose, the company’s business development engineer, as he stands on the busy production floor of the plant in Sharon. He shows off 15-inch-thick sound-absorbing walls, and explains that everything is custom-built to address specific sound frequencies.

Then he takes me outside to show me what his company can do.

He leads me across the snow to a little building, designed for loud equipment. One side is open, and another is walled off by a series of panels, a few inches thick and about a foot and a half deep.

From inside the building, it’s like you’re looking through open window blinds. The panels are made of perforated sheet metal and sound-absorbing insulation.

Mose crouches inside, looks out at me through the slats, and starts talking. Even though he’s only three or four feet away, I pick up only the faintest hints of his voice. Mostly, I watch his mouth move and hear nothing. It’s kind of amazing.

That kind of technology can reduce compressor noise from factory-floor level, like in Frank Brothers’ yard, to a low hum, about what you’d expect if you lived in an urban neighborhood.

In fact, when I stand about eight feet outside a noise-suppressing building housing a compressor station in Canton, Ohio, the sound is similar to the highway traffic I hear from my neighborhood in Cleveland.

Dominion East Ohio owns this station, and John Schniegenberg is the company’s principal engineer. He says the effect isn’t cheap.

“We’re probably talking in excess of a quarter million dollars,” for noise abatement at the $6 million facility, he says.

But that has bought much better relations with the neighbors.

Even with low oil prices, professional noise fighters are confident. Sound regulations are tightening. And gas producers profit on volume, so they’re always trying to move more gas, faster. That means stronger – and louder – compressors.

Noise Solutions’ CEO Scott MacDonald says his role is to referee.

“We help to ensure harmony between the industry and the community,” he says.

That doesn’t guarantee communities will embrace oil and gas development. But it might lower the volume on a little part of the debate.

How We Survive
How We Survive
Climate change is here. Experts say we need to adapt. This series explores the role of technology in helping humanity weather the changes ahead.