Not fracking with millions of gallons of water this time round — waterless fracking.
Americans love a good game with lots of momentum and game-changing shifts. Who would have thunk — shale gas extraction is turning out to be one of the most exciting games in town.
The Original Natural Gas Game Changer
Over the last few years, horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing (a k a fracking) has taken the natural gas industry by storm, and been hailed widely as a “game changer” for America’s energy prospects. (See here, here, here and here.)
Why such a game-changer? Because suddenly the tons of natural gas trapped in impervious (a k a tight) shale formations right here under these United States, which until recently were considered economically unrecoverable, were now gettable. Suddenly, estimates of recoverable supplies shot upwards while natural gas prices began a long and steady decline.
Game Change #2: Enter the Environment
For a while fracking appeared to be an environmental boon as well as an energy and economic bonanza. After all, natural gas is the cleanest-burning fossil fuel both in terms of conventional pollutants and carbon dioxide (CO2).
But the bloom quickly faded from that flower. The fracking process generates air pollution, and the leakage of natural gas releases methane (a greenhouse gas many times more effective than CO2) into the atmosphere. Communities have been up in arms about traffic, accidents and trucks linked to fracking ops. (See here and here.)
But by far the greatest criticisms have involved water. Fracking requires the high-pressure injection of huge quantities of water, various (often unknown) chemicals and sand, and then the recovery and disposal of that so-called flowback water along with the briny formation (or produced) water. (More on fracking water.) At any number of points in the process, fracking fluids and/or recovered water can inadvertently — or not inadvertently, if dumped into local rivers or streams — contaminate local groundwater or drinking water.
Potential water contamination has made fracking very controversial. While the industry maintains the process is safe, movies like Gasland paint a very different picture — perhaps accurate, perhaps not. And while scientists study it to get a better answer, community and environmental advocacy groups have roundly condemned the process. Organized efforts have seen some success at halting and even banning (see here and here) the practice, but they have yet to put any real crimp on the drilling fever. (In fact many of the bans are symbolic or under review, such as two municipal bans in New York, whose moratorium on fracking is pending environmental review, and could be removed.)
Another Game Change: Economics
Although the overall number of new natural gas wells drilled annually has dropped off from a peak of more than 30,000 in 2008-2009, some areas (like the Barnett) have yet to peak [pdf].
But if anything has taken the wind out of the fracking industry’s sails it is their own success — with the supply of natural gas outstripping demand, natural gas prices have plummeted, making it difficult for frackers to turn a profit.
And Now Yet Another Game Changer: Hold the Water
Initially developed by the Calgary-based GasFrac Energy Services as a way to nudge low-pressure wells, this new “game changer” works much like the original one with one important difference: it does not use water. With waterless fracking, a gel of liquefied petroleum gas (a mix of light hydrocarbons, primarily propane) is pumped at high pressure into the ground to fracture the shale and free the natural gas. Once the pressure is released, the LPG reverts to gas and can be vented, flared or captured for sale or reuse. (More details on the process can be found in this Powerpoint [pdf] produced by GasFrac.)
The no-added water aspect has two major environmental advantages:
- Water conservation: A typical frack injects tons of water, an LPG frack none.
- Lower risk of water contamination: Because fracking fluid is not injected into the well, the chances of water contamination are greatly reduced if not totally eliminated.
GasFrac cites a number of other advantages, including:
- no need to use biocides;
- reduced CO2 emissions since there is less need to flare production and clean up the traditional fracturing fluids (however, as noted below, flaring has been used in LPG fracked wells);
- fewer trucks needed to haul and dispose of fluids (because “the volume of propane required for an LPG frac job is about 20 to 25 per cent of the volume of water required for typical hydraulic fracturing” [pdf]); and
- no water to manage or dispose. (Note: GasFrac’s Powerpoint [pdf] implies that there is no need to dispose of produced water as well as introduced water. But since produced water comes from the geological formation itself, I am not so sure this is the case.)
GasFrac also claims that while LPG-fracking is somewhat more expensive than typical fracking, its wells are more productive. Unfortunately, specifics on that front are lacking due to, in the words of the company [pdf], “client confidentiality.”
Beyond literature from GasFrac itself, there’s not a whole lot of information out there about LPG fracking. That shouldn’t be all that surprising; the company is a mere four years old and justifiably wants to protect its proprietary methods and procedures. But that leaves a lot of questions about safety and efficacy unanswered, and if you’re a government official needing to give the go-ahead on LPG fracking, you’d want to have those answers. Case in point: drilling in Tioga County, New York.
GasFracing in the Empire State
GasFrac’s LPG method has been used in about 1,200 fracks on 400 wells, most in Canada but a few in the United States, including Colorado’s Niobrara Formation. (U.S. oil giant Chevron, for whom GasFrac’s chief technology officer worked while he developed the process, has also tested LPG fracking in Colorado’s Piceance Basin.)
The buzz about the process has slowly grown alongside GasFrac’s client base, helping the company grow “586 percent” [pdf] in just three years. But with that success dominated by Canadian plays, GasFrac is looking to expand into the U.S. market, and it has its sights on New York. First came a deal with the Houston-based energy company eCorp. Then came a tentative agreement with landowners in in Tioga County, New York, to develop 135,000 acres of Marcellus shale using LPG. The moves are significant because of New York’s fracking moratorium. The hope on the part of the landowners, GasFrac and eCorp is that using LPG instead of water-based fracking will allay environmental concerns enough to make an end run around the fracking ban possible.
But some environmental groups, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and Riverkeepers, are not convinced waterless is clean and green. They have cited concerns about the continued reliance on toxic additives and the danger of explosions when using a flammable agent like propane (one case of which caused the company a three-week shutdown in January [pdf]). In a letter [pdf] to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, representatives of 16 environmental and flyfishing groups and a university urged the department to give “consideration to the unique hazards of LPG fracturing” and to conduct a thorough environmental review before permitting the process in the state.
Yogi Berra (and Lenny Kravitz) said “it ain’t over till it’s over,” and I suspect we’ve got quite a few more game changers before this fat lady sings.