Of the many critiques of the hydraulic fracturing process, nearly all of them are linked in some way to water. But as it turns out, at least one company is successfully introducing alternatives to water to the fracking process. A new take on fracking developed by Canada-based GasFrac redefines the process as we know it by injecting petroleum-based liquids deep into the earth rather than water mixed with a chemical cocktail.
As concerns continue to grow about the threat of seismic activity and water table contamination, water-free fracking is getting more press from the likes of the Albany Times Union and The New York Times.
Proponents claim water-free fracking is a solution to some of the most common criticisms of the process as a whole, but what are those benefits? Furthermore, why haven't more companies embraced the technology?
How does water-free fracking work?
In much the same manner as traditional hydraulic fracturing, fracturing without water starts with the drilling of a well. Once the well reaches the desired formation, drilling continues horizontally. The well is then injected with a proppant carrier that fractures the formation and allows natural gas and/or oil to escape to the surface.
GasFrac uses liquid propane as its proppant carrier, but there are additional water alternatives that have been proposed by other groups. While more costly than water, GasFrac claims there are several benefits of using propane, each resulting from the chemical makeup of propane in comparison to that of water.
- Propane fracks wells more effectively. Because liquid propane reverts to gas form as a result of the heat and pressure present in well conditions, it flows freely back to the surface and prevents blockage that often occurs with water that's left below the surface.
- Fewer pollutants reach the surface. When liquid propane is vaporized in a well, GasFrac claims it leaves behind all the pollutants typically brought to surface with produced water including heavy metals that naturally occur in rock formations and the fracking chemicals themselves.
- Post-fracking propane can be sold. Unlike produced water which often represents little more than an additional expense for drilling companies due to disposal costs, the propane gas that emerges from a well after it has been fracked can be cleaned and either reused or sold.
The perceived issues with hydraulic fracturing
In today's world of energy development, it's hard to come up with anything as controversial as hydraulic fracturing. The process has revolutionized the oil and gas industry, and we're all benefiting from the low prices that have resulted from the industry's ability to tap into previously unattainable resources. But according to many vocal critics, in spite of cheap prices, fracking brings with it the threat of pollution at nearly every turn.
In contrast to the benefits GasFrac claims to offer with a water-free process, fracking as we know it has several issues based primarily on water use.
Water supply issues
In easily quantifiable terms, the scale of water consumption associated with traditional hydraulic fracturing methods is unsustainable by the local ecosystems of many drill sites, particularly in the arid areas where some of the most valuable underground formations are located. According to the September 25, 2013, weekly update by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, there are some 45 towns in Texas where water access could run out in fewer than 180 days.
Scarcity means drilling companies often have to bring in water supplies from elsewhere, which also adds to the carbon footprint of a well.
Issues beyond supply with using water to frack
Other than supply itself, there are other concerns associated with water used in the fracking process. In order to be effective at oil and gas extraction, water is mixed with chemicals and proppants before being injected into a well. After being mixed onsite, the produced water has the capacity to threaten groundwater reserves if spilled on the surface, and has to be disposed of after it has been used, both of which can be costly.
What's holding water-free fracking back?
According to most media accounts of water-free fracking technology, there are two major factors limiting its widespread implementation:
While a well site's water supply often presents drilling companies with a hefty bill, choosing another option, whether it be the liquid propane used by GasFrac or the liquefied carbon dioxide other groups are developing, is even more costly.
Secondly, because of pending patents and other techniques to keep water-free fracking techniques proprietary, there simply isn't much data available to the public outlining the efficacy of the new methods. Barring one of these two factors changing significantly in the near future, water-free fracking may have no other choice than to maintain its status as a great idea on the backburner of the industry.