The drive through Lancaster County in southeastern Pennsylvania is a pretty one. Rows of corn stocks line backroads under picturesque blue skies. This is farmland.

It’s also home to the second-largest Amish community in the U.S. But to the appreciative executives, contractors and workers finishing up the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline extension, it’s also known as Spread 7, an important link in the much-anticipated project that has been four years in the making.

On a bright and sunny Friday morning, a Williams Partners LP SUV pulls up to a hidden clearing between thick trees, far removed from the barns and fields it passed to get there. At that moment, Atlantic Sunrise was about a month away from full service and finishing touches were coming along splendidly on the 1.7 billion-cubic-feet-per-day (Bcf/d) pipeline that connects to Williams’ existing Transco Pipeline not far away. Once fully operational, Atlantic Sunrise is expected to go a long way to easing the bottlenecks that plague the Marcellus and to help producers get substantial reserves of natural gas out of the basin and to vital markets up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

It was a massive project.

Multiple obstacles
The first thing that comes to mind while looking out over a hilly corridor where Caterpillar operators carefully tap dirt into place above the 42-inch pipe is that it was not any easy one. The 189-mile greenfield path from near Bradford, Pa., to southern Lancaster County was riddled with obstacles.

“These are arguably quite treacherous mountains. They are difficult terrain to lay [pipe] in,” said Evan Kirchen, vice president of engineering and construction for Williams Partners, in an interview back at the company’s offices in Houston. “The issues are safety and keeping the pipe stabilized.”

The project encountered several stream crossings as well, which required directional drilling in some cases. One quick look at an area near the Conestoga River in Lancaster County shows evidence of the journey. The pipe crosses under the river, burrows through a hillside past a lone, undisturbed house and emerges unscathed across a road. It’s a testament to the drilling skill involved.

And much of the work in the vital Spread 7 was done while working around a particularly nasty winter in the northeastern U.S. this year.

Challenges, challenges
Despite challenges that were thrown its way from the terrain, Mother Nature, the occasional landowner (the project saw less than 5% condemnations, according to Williams), regulators and, yes, protesters—some of whom at one point barged into the project’s field office and even went as far as to stage a fake cemetery in the pipeline’s path—Atlantic Sunrise construction marched on.

And it’s an important infrastructure build for the gas industry.

“It’s a combination of two things, really. It opens up the Marcellus, which is in much need of takeaway capacity,” said Frank Ferazzi, senior vice president for Atlantic-Gulf at Williams in Houston. “It gives access to the market of Transco, and not just a little bit of the market. The path that we cover essentially gives access to virtually all the markets on the East Coast that Transco serves.

“It will interconnect with Transco mainline in Southeast Pennsylvania, and then it has access to all of the customers to have capacity through that, including those who serve the New York market,” Ferazzi continued. “But we’re actually providing additional reverse-flow capability to deliver much of that supply all the way down to our Station 85 [in Alabama].”

Atlantic Sunrise will serve nine different shippers. The largest is Cabot Oil & Gas, which Ferazzi said is about half of the line’s 1.7 Bcf/d capacity.

“They’re already a large customer of Williams, but this will be the first contract they have with Transco,” he said. “It makes them a Top 5 customer by virtue of their participation in this single project.”

For producers like Cabot, the new takeaway capacity couldn’t come soon enough.

Breaking the logjam
“We have suffered a differential in that northeastern part of Pennsylvania unlike any part of the country has for the last three or four years, simply because we have about 8 Bcf/d of gas in a six-county area moving per day,” Dan Dinges, CEO of Cabot Oil & Gas, said during a recent Leaders In Industry Luncheon at the Houston Petroleum Club. “The pipeline just will not hold any more capacity than that. We are trying to break the logjam.”

Dinges told the gathering the gas that will come through Atlantic Sunrise has already been sold. He expects the project to generate significant cash flow in the next three years and beyond.

But producers won’t be the only one benefitting. Ferazzi explained that the project connects many markets on the East Coast to Marcellus gas for the first time. That will allow Transco’s markets to continue to grow as well.

“It’s consistent with Williams’s strategy of matching supply with growing markets,” he said.

Road less traveled
Make no mistake, Williams has always been interested in taking advantage of as much existing pipe as possible. Atlantic Sunrise is, after all, about making Transco even more productive.

“Once you get to Transco, we’re taking advantage of pipe we already have in the ground that is historically good in supplying north-south,” Ferazzi said. “We did have to build some new facilities to allow for reverse flow, but we didn’t have to build a new pipeline. We were able to, at reasonable cost, give customers access to virtually every market on the East Coast.”

But traversing the busy Northeast corridor, particularly in eastern Pennsylvania and northern New Jersey, was part of the reason Williams decided to carve a largely greenfield path to meet Transco.

“That corridor through New Jersey and New York is highly utilized and difficult to build out because it’s very urban,” Kirchen said. “This project is a much larger project than we could get around that corridor, so you can go directly down into southern Pennsylvania and tie in.”

“It made a lot of sense for us to build brand-new infrastructure, bypassing a lot of the congested area and expanding further south,” Ferazzi added.

Greenfield challenges
Of course, any greenfield path will keep developers on their toes and ready to adjust. And that it did. Ferazzi pointed out while looking at a map that—although the path looks straight—it is wrought with twists and turns throughout the length of the pipeline. Some were the result of the wishes of regulators, some to appease landowners and some simply because the terrain proved too formidable, so it was better to just bypass it.

“A greenfield path always has its challenges,” Kirchen said. “We spent a lot of effort with our outreach in communities and with landowners, and also working with regulating authorities, primarily around water bodies.”

The entire project took place inside Pennsylvania’s borders and the Williams executives said working with one government body helped, especially in a state with a vested economic interest in the success of the gas industry.

“You’re dealing with a government, and just because of the development of the Marcellus, they are used to infrastructure projects,” Ferazzi said. “We’ve proven to Pennsylvania that we can build pipelines the way they are supposed to be built.”

Land acquisition
Atlantic Sunrise runs through a part of Pennsylvania that thrives on fertile farmland and features plenty of streams, creeks and rivers. Kirchen said the mountainous area to the north and farmland to the south forced a fair share of rerouting. Often, he said, the company voluntarily rerouted the pipeline as the request of landowners. It also aimed to make minimally impact the environment.

“More than half of the pipeline was modified at points to accommodate the feedback from landowners,” he said.

In one instance, the company rerouted the pipeline around a horse farm that also served the only veterinarian in the area. He also pointed to “a few anthropological findings” that they had to reroute around.

But Williams’s executives weren’t at all concerned about the rerouting, saying it goes with the territory—no pun intended. During a visit to the site, one local executive said he had been attending a fair share of livestock auctions and bid on more than a few pigs.

And as for protesters, any high-profile pipeline project has them. Many, however, were from other regions of the country and the protests seem to focus more on the campaigns against fossil fuels in general rather than the Atlantic Sunrise project itself. And about those protesters who barged into the field office one day, they eventually left peacefully—but left some of the office staff a little shaken from the experience.

What’s next?
Now that Atlantic Sunrise is in-service, the first question that comes to mind is, Will its capacity be expanded?

Ferazzi answered with a chuckle and declined to comment. But he did offer, “Once you build an existing line and you develop relationships with landowners and you have pipe in the ground, the future expansions to get additional supplies on Transco will be much easier than what we had to go through initially to build that greenfield pipeline.”

Point taken.

“No doubt, once you put in a large pipeline like that, you position yourself well to be able to expand it over time,” he added.