As I have discussed in my last few posts on the issue of fracking, there is no shortage of controversy over the practice. Looking at headlines over the last week, you can see why the issue has become so contentious and in some instances sensationalized. In last week’s Billings Gazette, authorities in Bismarck, North Dakota found the largest illegal dump site of filters that are used to keep naturally-occurring radioactivity from fracking wells out of the environment. Authorities tested these filters and confirmed that they have low levels of naturally-occurring radioactivity. Did you read about the 4.4 magnitude earthquake in Los Angeles last week? According to the Los Angeles Times, the LA City Council is looking into whether fracking played a role in causing the temblor that shook Los Angeles. Needless to say, the fracking industry garners much attention from news media and pundits , for both warranted and unwarranted reasons. But it is hard to deny the economic impacts that the practice can have. Are there ways (if the industry is regulated correctly) to practice fracking safely? In this article, I will explore some of the interesting new technologies that drillers are using to reduce water consumption and make the process of fracking cleaner.
Reduction of Water Consumption
Regardless of where drilling takes place, fracking requires massive amounts of water to unlock natural gas from the rocks deep below the earth’s surface. In my first post on the topic, I pointed out that many areas of the country that have significant natural gas formations also currently face drought conditions. States such as Texas, Colorado and California have some of the largest shale formations in the country, but are also experiencing sustained drought conditions. With limited water to go around, drilling companies are having a harder and harder time sourcing water for their new drilling projects. However, the problem of limited freshwater supplies has helped spur innovation in the field. Drilling services firms are looking into ways to reuse and recycle the water that drilling companies recover from their current sites to use in future wells.
STW Resources for example is a company that is showing promising new technologies in this field. The company earlier this month announced that the Permian Laboratories in Midland, Texas certified its technology to remove salt and other contaminants from produced fracking water (water that is pulled back out of the ground after a well begins production). Each one of the company’s High Frequency Electro Induction Systems (HFEIS) mounts onto a trailer and can process up to 200,000 gallons per day of produced water. In a press release, Stanley Weiner, Chairman and CEO of STW summarized well the potential that this technology has for the industry:
“We will be tapping into a tremendous unmet need for fresh water for oil and gas drilling and fracking operations. Texas alone produces approximately eight billion barrels (one barrel = 42 gallons) of produced and frac flowback water per year in its oil and gas drilling, fracking and producing operations. Nationwide, the industry generates approximately 30 billion barrels of produced water per year. Processing saline waters into fresh water, while generating excess electricity will go a long way towards creating energy independence in an environmentally friendly manner. Not only are we processing produced water into usable water for oilfield operations, we are preserving our natural fresh water resources and actually introducing new fresh water into our ecosystem.”
A few other companies in the space are using new technologies that both recycle produced water and use alternative substances to break the underground formations. Drilling services company Halliburton created an alternative to using fresh water for fracking. The product, called UniStim, can create fracking fluids from basically any quality of water. The breakthrough will allow drillers to use either recycled water or highly saline water from deep underground (and therefore not suitable for human consumption unless highly treated). As you will see in my next piece, the differing chemical and geological conditions found in different formations across the United States make it difficult for technology companies to come up with a “one size fits all” solution to water treatment. However, in this instance, Halliburton has come up with a technology that allows it to create fracking fluids from water sources with varying characteristics.
Some companies are exploring techniques that use no water at all. GasFrac uses a gel-like substance to pump down the well and create fissures. The gel that GasFrac uses holds sand better than water, and therefore the company has to use approximately 1/8th the volume of gel (compared to a water-based drilling solution) to frack a well. Also, the gel contains some propane to mimic the types of hydrocarbons that the well eventually releases. As such, the gel simply mixes in with the natural gas removed from the well, eliminating the need to haul and dispose produced water from the site.
Using vast amounts of freshwater in areas facing drought is not sustainable in the long-term. Technologies like STW’s could re-use the water that drilling companies have used over and over again. The technology would reduce drilling companies’ need for fresh water and help to make the practice of drilling more sustainable. The technology also makes some strides towards dealing with the issue of drilling wastewater treatment. This issue, however, may be a tougher issue to tackle. I will discuss this issue in my next piece.