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Reliable alternative to water could ease economic, environmental issues for gas drillers

Reliable alternative to water could ease economic, environmental issues for gas drillers

From Trib Live
By David Conti, Trib Total Media

Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Updated 12 hours ago


Some regulators and researchers see it as the shale gas industry’s version of the Holy Grail. Finding a viable alternative to the millions of gallons of water that companies use during hydraulic fracturing could remove some of the industry’s most serious environmental challenges.

“There’s a potential for a radical reduction in a lot of impacts and issues if we found a reliable alternative to water,” said Scott Perry, deputy secretary for oil and gas management at the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Several companies are field-testing new technologies that use high-pressure carbon dioxide, propane or butane instead of water to break apart shale and lodge sand in the fissures to free the trapped gas. An ongoing National Energy Technology Lab study at the University of Texas is looking at the best ways to stabilize foams for fracking with carbon dioxide, nitrogen or gas liquids.

The goal is not just to eliminate the potential environmental concerns of drawing fresh water from rivers and disposing of water that could be tainted with high levels of salts, dissolved solids or leftover fracking chemicals; shale companies want to squeeze more gas from each well to fight depressed prices.

“From a productivity perspective, water creates all kinds of problems downhole that carbon dioxide does not,” said Mark Weise, business development director for energy services at Connecticut-based Praxair Inc., the largest industrial gases company in the Americas. The company in September started selling its DryFrac system that uses liquid carbon dioxide.

Weise said energy companies, including some operating in the Marcellus shale, have expressed interest. He declined to name them or discuss pricing.

Environmentalists would be happy to see drillers use less freshwater and produce less wastewater, but caution against too much celebration around waterless fracking.

“The vast quantity of water that’s needed is one big harm. It’s not the only one,” said Maya van Rossum of the Delaware Waterkeeper, a critic of natural gas development. “Addressing one piece of it does not negate the other harms.”

Producers are particularly intent on cracking a very stubborn oil-rich area of the Utica shale in Ohio that has resulted in poorly performing wells. Deep in the shale, water can sometimes cause rock and clay to hold onto gas instead of release it.

Promoters of waterless technologies such as DryFrac and Calgary-based GasFrac Inc. say they can avoid that issue while eliminating the need to treat flowback water.

“Everyone is trying to unlock the key to the treasure of producing these bigger molecules through this tight rock,” said Ken Mariani, president of EnerVest. The Houston company partnered with Downtown-based EQT Corp. and other operators on a test well in Tuscarawas County, Ohio, that they fracked last month using a fluid that was 75 percent butane and 25 percent mineral oil.

EnerVest worked with GasFrac on the Ohio well. The companies involved won’t know for at least three months whether the well will be productive, Mariani said.

“It’s too early for results and we don’t have big plans at the moment for proceeding with this type of technology, but it’s facilitating the learning process,” said EQT spokeswoman Linda Robertson. “One interesting note is that once you frack the well and flow it back, you can recover the butane and reuse it.”

GasFrac says that more than 90 percent of the propane, butane and pentane it uses to replace water can be recovered with the gas that comes out of the well.

Praxair promotes its ability to integrate the liquid carbon dioxide into equipment that handles water, so contractors have less of a learning curve and can use the same amount of sand as they would if fracking with water. Weise noted that his company’s product is not flammable like propane or butane.

The response to waterless fracking has been mixed among some Marcellus operators. Some say it holds less promise in so-called dry areas that don’t produce liquids such as butane and propane.

“We’re pure methane,” said George Stark, spokesman for Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas, Pennsylvania’s second-largest shale gas producer. “When you start introducing other things, you’re adding something you don’t need added. We don’t see how that would benefit the fracture.”

Dallas-based ExCo Resources tried using propane in the Marcellus several years ago but found “it just was not commercially advantageous,” said spokeswoman Donna Sablotny.

“These jobs are a lot more expensive,” said Mariani, who did not disclose a price.

Weise said the technology can compete economically with water-based fracking when the cost of sourcing and disposing of water and potential environmental impacts are factored in.

“Over the life of a well, cost savings are realized through the mitigation of water handling, disposal, trucking, etc.,” said Adam Friio, a marketing manager at GasFrac. “However, there are higher up-front costs due to the cost of the fluids.”

The company estimated the cost of its fracking at $310,000 per stage, more than twice the average it calculated for traditional fracking. Companies can reduce that by recovering and selling the liquids in the gas.

Facing both environmental and economic pressures, companies will likely find a way to make it work, Perry said.

“I would not bet against technological advances in this industry,” he said.

David Conti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5802 or



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