Chapter 9: Marketing for Environmental Horizontal Well Installations

Potential Clients and Sites

This chapter examines potential remediation sites from a marketing perspective, identifying the major prospects for horizontal drilling services, focusing on key selling points for horizontal directional drilling at each type of site, and describing some of the considerations to keep in mind when bidding projects in the various categories.

Who Buys Horizontal Drilling Services?

Marketing efforts for horizontal well contractors are typically directed at three potential groups. The first group includes consulting and engineering firms, and/or remediation contractors (if the horizontal well driller is not one himself). The second group includes site owners, operators, and managers -- usually either the general manager of a given site, the corporate environmental compliance officers, or the manager of a corporate division or project, responsible for a region or specific group of sites. This group also includes governmental agencies that own and operate sites such as military bases, public works facilities, or other installations. A third group, regulatory agencies, should also be considered in marketing but will generally not provide direct sales opportunities. The rationale for this will be explained later in the chapter.

Consulting and Engineering Firms

Consultants and engineering companies provide the largest percentage of available work for a drilling contractor, ranging from the very smallest to the largest of sites. An understanding of how these companies fit into the scheme of site cleanup is useful in defining the chain of command that exists at a given site, as well as the relationships among consultants, owners, regulators, and contractors. Consultants are usually retained by a site owner or operator when contamination at the site becomes evident, either through direct observation or as a result of regulatory notification or enforcement. The consultant is hired to investigate the nature and extent of contamination at the site: what was released, how much, and where did it go? Is it in the soil, the groundwater, or both? What are the pathways by which humans, animals, and plants might be exposed?

To answer these questions, the consultant will plan and execute an investigation that may involve extensive sampling, geophysical surveys, drilling, chemical analysis, and other tools. These investigations may require a half day of field work at a small site. A large Superfund site, in contrast, might take years to study at a cost of several million dollars. After the site has been investigated, a remedial action plan will be developed to clean up the contamination. The plan will include the design for removing or mitigating contaminants at the site, as well as plans for waste handling, health and safety for on-site workers, longterm monitoring, and other issues. For smaller sites under voluntary cleanup rules, the cleanup plan may be straightforward and quickly put into action. Large sites under agency oversight may require extensive design efforts, public hearings and community involvement requirements, and regulatory approval. Many projects that involve horizontal wells will be large and costly enough to require regulatory involvement at least, if not direct oversight and approval.

After the plan has been approved, one or more contractors will be selected to perform the remediation. Some consultants may act as general contractors and handle many of the required tasks themselves, which might include electrical installations, chemical treatment plant or building construction, and other tasks. These consultants will contract out the tasks for which they have no in-house capabilities. Other consulting firms may act more like a construction manager and prepare bid packages on the owner's behalf for all of the required construction activities. In some cases, the drilling contractor will work directly for the consultant; in others, he will be contracted by the owner but will take direction from the consultant.

Site Owners: Corporate Projects and Government Clients

In some instances, the drilling contractor may be contracted directly by the site owner. Some organizations are large enough, with extensive in-house resources, to direct their own investigations and cleanup activities, and require no outside consultants. In other cases, the owner may wish to retain more control over site activities and will hire the driller directly, instead of through a consultant.

An increasing number of environmental projects are also being completed that do not actually involve contaminated materials. More stringent regulations that pertain to the monitoring of facilities are being adopted for many industries, particularly where above-ground storage tanks are involved. Horizontal directional drilling is proving to be an excellent method by which to install leak sensors beneath tanks, landfill liners, or other large, otherwise inaccessible structures. Projects such as these are likely to be planned and contracted by the environmental or engineering division of the company or organization that owns and operates the facility.

Large governmental agencies, such as the Army Corps of Engineers, other Department of Defense agencies, and the Department of Energy, often preside over the cleanup of large environmental sites on government lands. In most of these cases, there is an on-site contractor/manager who manages the day-to-day site activities and acts as a quasigovernmental agency itself. This will be a corporation with a division dedicated to federal work. This organization may manage a variety of subcontractors, consultants, and teams from other agencies on a large cleanup project. On projects such as these, it is sometimes difficult to determine exactly who is responsible for managing the drilling contractor's work: the corporation who hired him, the agency for which that corporation works, another agency brought in to oversee or supervise the drilling task, or the consulting firm that designed the installation. Often, the drilling contractor must satisfy all parties simultaneously.

Regulatory Agencies

Regulatory agencies such as the EPA or equivalent state agencies are seldom clients of horizontal drilling contractors. An exception would be a site where the agency has taken control of the cleanup, either because a responsible party cannot be found or because the responsible party refuses to take action. Although marketing to these agencies will not likely result in immediate sales, it is important for agency personnel to be aware of new developments in the industry, since these same personnel are in a position to influence or direct the cleanup efforts performed within the private sector. This is particularly important with a relatively new technology like horizontal drilling, which has not been widely used.

Agency personnel are generally prohibited from recommending a contracting firm to the public, even when specifically asked. However, it benefits a contractor to educate the regulators about his firm's capabilities and to become listed on their roster of local remediation contractors. Also, since agency activities are a matter of public record, the agencies can be a good source of information about what projects are currently underway, their status, and who is doing the work. Most state agencies issue quarterly reports containing this information; some have on-line, searchable databases accessible over the Internet or through a computer bulletin board system.

What Sites Are Likely Candidates?

With the major clients for horizontal drilling services defined, the contractor's next objective is to become familiar with the kinds of sites that are candidates for horizontal drilling. Horizontal remediation wells installed with directional drilling techniques have several associated advantages, both in the logistics of completing the work and in the performance and operating characteristics of the installed well. Depending on the circumstances at a given site, some or all of those advantages may make horizontal drilling an attractive alternative to other cleanup methods. In some cases, horizontal drilling may be the only possible option for the cleanup of a contaminated zone. The following sites are well-suited to horizontal drilling to prevent site disturbance or improve remediation performance.

Gas Stations

Gas stations are found everywhere in the country and once represented a sizable market for environmental remediation firms. This market has gradually declined in the past few years, as existing sites have been cleaned up. The reason for this is that underground storage tanks (USTs), particularly those at service stations, were targeted for stringent environmental regulations in the mid-1980s.

These regulations required that USTs be upgraded to meet new standards over a period of a few years ending in 1998.

The new regulations spawned a surge in environmental cleanups, rapid growth in the environmental consuiting industry, and a huge construction boom as gas stations everywhere were excavated, remedied, and upgraded with new equipment. As the deadline approaches, many of the tanks have had upgrades completed. This would suggest that gas stations are not a potential market for horizontal wells.

That assumption, however, would be incorrect. The EPA reports that about 30,000 releases from underground storage tanks, many of these at gas stations, are reported every year, with nearly 175,000 reported releases still awaiting cleanup. Despite the regulations, many gas stations were never upgraded and releases from others have created contaminated zones that extend well beyond the boundaries of the station property. These zones were often not accessible for cleanup until horizontal drilling matured into a viable remediation technology. To be successful in developing this market, the drilling contractor must locate project sites that have sufficient contamination to warrant the cost of a horizontal installation and have sufficient monetary resources to pay for the work.

Sites owned or being managed by major oil companies come immediately to mind as a potential market. UNOCAL was initially a pioneer in the development of horizontal drilling techniques for the remediation of service stations; other companies have followed suit. The large oil companies typically perform these remediation projects with in-house personnel, although the use of consultants is also common.

Particularly where a gas station is still operating, the use of horizontal drilling can allow continued operation of the station during the installation process. HDD is also an advantageous technology where contamination has extended off the station property and beneath adjacent public rights of way or adjoining businesses or residences. In many cases, city authorities will not allow the excavation of a city street to remove contaminated soil for disposal, but the environmental regulators still demand that something be done. HDD is well-suited for this scenario.

To successfully develop gas stations as a market segment, the drilling contractor should cultivate good working relationships with the local environmental consultants and educate them about the effectiveness of horizontal drilling for these sites. Periodic review of the state-issued lists of contaminated sites will also help find those sites that have just been identified and are entering the investigation phase. If horizontal drilling is to be considered for a given site, the remediation designer must be aware of its potential very early in the design process.

Industrial Sites

Serious levels of contamination have been discovered at industrial sites ranging from coffee-roasting plants to metal fabricators. Any facility that uses solvents, paints, lubricants, pesticides, or other hazardous chemicals as part of its operations is a potential candidate if a release has occurred at the site.

Common features of most industrial sites include:

  • Limited access to contaminated zones, which often extend beneath buildings or structures.
  • A maze of buried utilities, piping, transfer lines, control circuits, and other subsurface obstructions.
  • On-site traffic related to production, shipping, security, and other activities 

The advantage of horizontal wells that makes them particularly well-suited to industrial site work is the ability to remotely access contaminated zones beneath surface obstructions, with minimal disturbance to ongoing site activities.

Industrial Area Redevelopment

Recently, many large metropolitan areas have started so-called "brownfields development" initiatives to revitalize some of the abandoned industrial areas within the cities. The stringent regulations that highlighted the environmental movement of the 1980s and early 1990s resulted in broad expanses of industrial property that were abandoned or underdeveloped, because no one wanted to acquire "distressed" property that had known or suspected contamination and that might require millions of dollars to clean up.

Recognizing that most of this property could never be restored to a pristine condition but still constituted a valuable asset for industrial development, many cities, developers, banks, and regulatory authorities have joined in a cooperative effort to restore these areas to productive use. This is being done through a combination of legislative and regulatory actions to establish more reasonable cleanup levels inside designated redevelopment areas, limit environmental liabilities for firms willing to develop within the areas, provide tax incentives, and make money more available for firms relocating into the areas. For instance, the EPA has removed more than 27,000 of the 40,000 sites listed in their CERCLIS registry of contaminated sites, thus removing the stigma of a federal listing, and has issued several guidelines to clarify liability issues.

Superfund monies were also allocated to develop pilot projects for site assessments at 50 brownfields sites across the United States at the end of 1996. Each of these sites will be eligible for a $200,000 grant. Although the initial grants do not include remediation, there is great potential for this type of work to expand significantly in the near future.

Horizontal drilling could be a key technology in this effort. With all the associated technical challenges for remediation of individual industrial sites (but on a grander scale), brownfields development projects could conceivably result in long-term contracts for drilling contractors. In addition to marketing to the consulting firms and other usual client base, contractors should find out who serves on the various steering committees for local brownfields initiatives and make appropriate presentations. Serving on a technology-related committee could also be a strategic marketing step.

Chemical Plants

These facilities represent a special instance of industrial facilities. Producing a variety of products from petrochemicals to insecticides, chemical plants have often been identified as a source of soil or groundwater contamination. As a potential source of work, chemical plants require a type of service similar to that required at generic industrial sites: accessibility within restricted areas, low impact on site operations, and high-performance remediation installations.

Chemical plants also require one of the highest levels of care for workers performing installations. If a driller misses his planned borehole path by a few feet during a utilities installation, it usually isn't a big problem. Missing the well path by a few feet in a chemical plant could result in rupture of high-pressure steam lines, chemical reaction vessels, or other equipment, with catastrophic results. The successful bidder for a project at a chemical site must be able to demonstrate not only competitive pricing, but a thorough understanding of the potential hazards involved in working at the site. Prior experience with environmental drilling and work on congested sites is a must. Organizations soliciting bids for chemical plant site work will be particularly interested in the guidance system used for navigating the drill, including its accuracy and signal stability where interference may be present.


Another special instance of an industrial property, closely related to the chemical plants, is the refinery. Even though there are only about 200 active refineries in the United States (according to the Environmental Defense Fund), they rank as the seventh-largest source of environmental releases of pollutants in the U.S. (as stated by the American Petroleum Institute). The average refinery emits about 10,000 gallons of contaminants a day, primarily petroleum hydrocarbons, into the soil, groundwater, surface water or air. Refineries have directed significant financial resources toward environmental cleanup in recent years. API noted that "in the last five years, refineries' environmental expenditures have risen by 60 percent, driven largely by provisions of the Clean Air Act." Although the main concern is releases to the air, groundwater releases also pose a significant threat

Currently, refineries represent one of the largest users of horizontal directional drilling technology, which adapts well to the particular needs of the remediation designer. As with industrial sites and chemical plants, the challenges of drilling on a refinery include:

  • A congested subsurface, with many buried control circuits, pipelines, conduits, and other structures.
  • Critical buried structures that have low tolerance to an unanticipated strike by a misguided drill bit.
  • Restricted surface area for setup and equipment operation.
  • Restricted access for walkover guidance of drilling tools.

All of these challenges, although making the driller's job more difficult, also make horizontal drilling the best choice for the installation of remediation systems.

With advancements in technology, a recent trend in regulations is to require the installation of leak detectors beneath tank systems. Prior to the availability of solid state detectors, leak detection in tanks was performed by a combination of product inventory (i.e., "sticking" the tank) and vertical monitoring wells around the perimeter of the facility. Neither of these methods provides a completely satisfactory means to directly monitor for leakage.

Inventory monitoring can be inaccurate, particularly in tanks that may hold millions of gallons and that expand and contract in response to temperature changes. Vertical monitoring wells will detect a release only after product has found its way completely through the unsaturated zone and spread out on the water table sometimes a release of thousands of gallons may occur before it becomes apparent in quarterly monitoring rounds.

With new sensing technologies, sensors are placed closely beneath the tanks, where they are quickly contacted by any escaping product. Although the sensors may be placed in a variety of ways (e.g., during construction of a new tank, by jacking up an existing tank, or by pulling them into a horizontal, perforated conduit), horizontal drilling offers the most promise for installations under existing above-ground tanks. The unique advantage of using horizontal drilling is that the tank does not have to be taken out of service and drained, as it does with sensors that are installed by tank jacking.

Commercial Properties

Many cleanup sites are not quite "industrial" in the sense of factories or plants, but are otherwise hard to classify. Dry-cleaning establishments are one example of industrial-type services that often exist in suburban environments. Dry cleaners are often a source of moderate to serious contamination from the release of dry-cleaning solvents into the soil or groundwater. The particular types of solvents used are also very mobile within the environment, often leaving the site and migrating downgradient as a contaminant plume. Sometimes these plumes travel long distances, beneath adjacent businesses, streets, and even homes.

Paint stores, auto mechanics, and other commercial businesses can have similar problems. Many old gas stations have been converted to commercial use but might suffer from subsurface contamination associated with leaks from oil sumps, buried tanks, and leaky hydraulic lifts.

Other potential sources of contamination in this category are the hundreds of county maintenance shops that dot the nation. Many of these shops are decades old, once contained USTs or other fuel and lubricant storage, and have been subjected to years of spills and releases from past maintenance practices. Often, these shops are located in the heart of suburban neighborhoods, sometimes adjacent to schools, homes, and churches. Counties facing the cleanup of these properties are looking for efficiency, low initial cost, low operating costs, and a low public profile during construction.

Horizontal drilling as a remediation technique fits well in this suburban environment. The drill rigs are small and unobtrusive, and are often seen doing utility work in the same neighborhoods, thereby attracting less negative attention. Horizontal soil vapor extraction wells can be installed beneath buildings and streets without disruption, and are very efficient in removing the organic vapors associated with this type of contamination.


Much of the remediation effort expended in the country to date has centered around the cleanup of old landfills. Past practice for the startup of a new landfill was to locate an abandoned quarry, gravel pit, or other hole in the ground, then to fill it up with garbage and industrial waste. Lining the excavation prior to. dumping in it was never considered, even if the technology had been available. Regulations instituted over the past two decades have stopped this practice, but the garbage accumulations remain. All new landfills have sophisticated liner systems to prevent the leakage of leachate (rainfall or snow melt, mixed with waste-derived chemicals in solution) from the landfill while it is being filled. After the landfills are filled, they are capped with an impermeable membrane to prevent new leachate from being created.

The most common methods to halt the flow of leachate from old, unlined landfills have been to cap them with high-density polyethylene and/or low permeability clay, or to excavate the waste and place it in a lined landfill. Usually the capping alternative has included the installation of monitoring wells to maintain long-term surveillance on water quality. New landfills also must comply with monitoring requirements.

Unfortunately, drilling through a landfill to install wells is not only difficult and hazardous, it also contaminates the well bore, making it difficult or impossible to tell if contaminated water is the result of leachate migration or garbage dragged down the borehole during well installation. Monitoring wells located around the perimeter of the landfill only provides an alert for potential contamination after it has already occurred.

As with similar monitoring systems for above-ground storage tanks, it is becoming more feasible to install monitoring devices closely beneath a landfill using horizontal drilling. By installing a slotted casing in a double-ended configuration, the owner can install a train of sensors across a selected path, move them if needed, and perform maintenance or replacement if it becomes necessary.

Landfill owners may be private corporations, county governments or PUDs, other regional quasi-governmental authorities. Most design work associated with landfills is performed by specialty consulting or engineering firms, although some of the larger national companies such as Browning Ferris Industries or WMX Technologies (Waste Management) have extensive in-house resources, as well. Projects may be advertised for competitive bid, or may be solicited from a roster by a county public works department or consultant.

Airports / Terminal Facilities

Airports and terminal facilities have been identified as one of the largest potential markets for horizontal drilling services. The Federal Aviation Administration reports 667 certificated public and private airfields in the United States, with virtually every large metropolitan area and most moderately sized cities having at least one airport.

Most of these have operated for many years and have varying amounts of contamination related to fuel spills, releases from leaking piping from fueling facilities, and wing deicing operations. A few highly visible projects have been completed already, with varying degrees of success. These projects are of particular interest to the drilling contractor for several reasons:

  • There will be little competition from other technologies, since excavating runways, taxiways, or terminal aprons is simply not an option at a busy airport.
  • The projects are well-funded by port authorities, reducing concerns about potential nonpayment difficulties.
  • Installations at airports tend to be large, requiring many wells and covering a large area. This reduces the mobilization and other overhead costs in comparison with the direct installation costs and enables the driller to keep prices down while still making a reasonable margin. It also keeps crews and equipment busy during periods of time that they might otherwise be idle.

Contractors considering bidding on airport projects should be prepared for complex bid packages that may or may not actually indicate an understanding of the unique capabilities and requirements of horizontal drilling. Runs will tend to be long, beneath thick, reinforced concrete slabs. The driller must be confident in his ability to navigate very accurately and hit the exit points exactly, since misses will be very expensive to correct. Depending on the region (particularly in the Midwest and on the East Coast), prevailing wages and/or union labor may be required for these publicly funded projects.

Shipyards / Marine Terminals

Remediation projects at these facilities can be similar in scope to those at airports. Although the work areas may not be as space-restricted, in many cases, as at industrial plants, the level of activity and traffic may be considerably higher. Labor requirements will be similar to those for airports, as well, since port facilities are publicly-owned and usually employed union-represented crafts.

One issue of particular interest to drillers is that groundwater at coastal port facilities is sometimes brackish or saline. This can affect the drilling fluids used in several ways and should be considered during the bidding process. If the mud is recirculated, the additional salt in the mud can quickly penetrate and corrode electrical connections for wire-line navigation systems, resulting in downtime and possibly lost pilot holes. Potential bidders should make appropriate allowances in equipment selection and scheduling.

Military Sites / Government Installations

Another market segment with great potential for the horizontal drilling contractor is the government segment. Government installations include thousands of air bases, dock facilities, munitions depots, and a wide range of other military facilities. The federal government, through agencies such as the Corps of Engineers and the Department of Energy, also operates power-generating facilities and nuclear fuels processing plants in many states. Within military bases are facilities that replicate civilian establishments, such as laundries, gas stations, and auto shops. In short, almost any type of facility that might be found in the civilian sector can also be found on a government installation somewhere, in addition to a number of facilities that can be found nowhere else.

Depending on the type of project and the nature of the installation, drilling contractors may be retained by civilian consultants or directly by the government or a civilian program manager. A small project (for example a gas station cleanup on an Army base) may be completed under contract to a local consulting firm that has been awarded an indefinite quantity contract to provide consulting services on an on-call basis.

At the other end of the project scale might be a major project to install several large wells on a site such as the Rocky Mountain Arsenal. A project of this type would require coordination between several agencies and would involve constant interaction with site security personnel. These additional complications often add days to the drilling schedule to accommodate security checks, on-site training, and other site requirements.

Projects on government installations are usually awarded through a competitive bidding process. Announcements of requests for proposals (RFPs) are listed in the Commerce Business Daily, which may also be accessed through several sources on the Internet (try It is beneficial to know about upcoming projects well in advance of CBD announcement, however, in order to position one's company strategically with good teaming partners, etc. Membership in a local Society of American Military Engineers (SAME) post is a good way to obtain this information, as is becoming familiar with the consulting firms that have been awarded local and regional federal contracts for on-call services or environmental investigation and cleanup at federal facilities.

Mine Sites

Active and abandoned mines are situated throughout the United States. Many of these sites have been continuing sources of groundwater pollution, but technologies to clean up the problems have not always been available. Horizontal directional drilling is now being considered in many cases as a potential solution to what can be serious groundwater contamination problems.

One of the largest problems associated with mines is acid waste drainage, which occurs as precipitation migrates downward through mine tailings, then enters surface streams or the water table. Particularly in the western United States, tailings dumps or ponds can cover tens of acres of land, usually within a stream basin. Remediation of this drainage, using any technology, is an expensive undertaking, involving either large-scale earth moving, the construction of impermeable covers, or installing extensive well networks.

Horizontal drilling has particular advantages in placing a large screened interval in contact with the contaminated zone from a single riser pipe. This is in sharp contrast to vertical well networks, which must penetrate overburden with each hole and can only intersect a relatively thin interval of contamination. Considering that mine tailings ponds or dumps can reach several hundred feet in thickness, the ratio of overburden to useful well screen becomes very significant. An additional advantage in HDD is the savings in operating costs for the remediation system. One horizontal well and its associated pump might replace 10 vertical wells, pumps, and conveyance lines. The cost of installation, operation, maintenance, repair, and replacement of the additional nine pumps used in a vertical well network could be hundreds of thousands of dollars over the duration of the project, which could be 50 years or more.

Mines may also have smelting facilities, crushers, or other processing plants, as well as shop facilities, fuel docks, and other potential contamination sources associated with the mining operation. Any of these could have potential marketing possibilities for the horizontal drilling contractor.


Horizontal directional drilling is faced with an ever-expanding marketplace in the environmental cleanup industry. As most of the "easy" sites have been cleaned up, the focus of remediation efforts has turned to those sites that are more difficult to remediate. In many cases, difficulty has been directly related to access problems that can be solved through the use of horizontal drilling. This chapter has presented an overview of many of the types of sites that comprise the horizontal drilling contractors marketplace. With diligence and observation, the contractor can identify additional opportunities within his own region.