Waterless Fracking Makes Headway in Texas, Slowly

Photo by Jennifer Whitney

 

 

This article is part of an occasional series on water and hydraulic fracturing by the Texas Tribune and StateImpact Texas.

Call it hydraulic fracturing — without the hydro.

In most hydraulic fracturing operations, several million gallons of water, together with sand and chemicals, get pumped down a hole to blast apart rock that encases oil or gas. But with water increasingly scarce and expensive around Texas, a few companies have begun fracking with propane or other alternative liquids.

“We don’t use any water,” said Eric Tudor, a Houston-based official with GasFrac, a Canadian company that fracks with propane geland butane. “Zip. None.” At a GasFrac operation in South Texas last month, a sticker on one worker’s hard hat showed a red slash through the word H2O.

Water-free fracking still remains an early-stage technology, with potentially higher initial costs than conventional fracking methods. But as lawmakers and oil regulators focus on the large quantity of water used for fracking wells, the concept is getting a closer look.

GasFrac has led the way, bringing its propane fracking operations to Texas, and there is talk of using other substances like carbon dioxide or nitrogen.

“We’ve looked at [propane fracking], and I would say that absolutely our industry is open to all possibilities,” said Michael Dunkel, the director of sustainable development for Pioneer Natural Resources, in testimony last month before a joint hearing of the House Energy Resources and Natural Resources committees.

Waterless fracking is “a viable technology for sure,” said David Yoxtheimer, an extension associate with the Marcellus Center for Outreach & Research at Penn State University. However, he noted, there is a reason that companies use water, namely that it is “virtually incompressible” and thus is very effective in bringing pressure against, and ultimately breaking up, rock.

Currently there are no special rules on fracking with propane or other nonwater liquids in Texas, according to Christi Craddick, one of three members of the Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates the oil and gas industry. The technology is “exciting” but still rare, she said, and no rule changes are on the horizon.

“We’ll see as the technology evolves if our rules need to evolve,” Craddick said last week in an interview.

Tudor, of GasFrac, said his company began working in Texas in 2010, after fracking its first well in Canada in 2008. It has done roughly 100 fracks in Texas so far, he estimated. (Some wells get fracked multiple times.) Much of the work has been in South Texas. A recent job bored into the San Miguel formation, which is a relatively shallow formation in the vicinity of the Eagle Ford Shale. But GasFrac has also done “a couple of prototype fracks” in West Texas, he said.

“We’re just getting started,” Tudor said.

Academics see a number of challenges associated with propane fracking, which few if any companies are experienting with in Texas, apart from GasFrac. First, according to Yoxtheimer, “you’ve got to truck in a lot of propane,” which can be expensive. He also said the propane “works less effectively in deeper formations where you need to build up more pressure.”

Tudor disagrees that these issues pose problems. He pointed out that the virtually all the propane — which is a byproduct of natural gas processing and oil refining — gets reused. Supplies of propane come from Corpus Christi, he said, and the fuel is “easily available” in South Texas. “We won’t cause any shortages,” he said.

That is an implicit contrast with the considerable water needs of conventional fracking, which already accounts for a double-digit percentage of water use in some rural Texas counties. The water leftover from fracking operations typically does not get reused. Instead, it gets discarded into a disposal well. (The Texas Railroad Commission on Tuesday approved rules to make it easier for companies to recycle water.)

Tudor also said that his company had fracked at depths well over 10,000 feet.

An advantage of propane fracks, said Yoxtheimer, is that they avoid the damage to the oil and gas-producing formation that water can cause.

“If you’re using water, the water can actually block off or at least impede the flow of hydrocarbons,” he said.

Tudor agreed, saying that his company could recover a higher percentage of the oil or gas with propane than with a traditional water frack job. It was this increased production, rather than the reduced use of water, that enticed GasFrac’s customers, he said.

David Burnett, research coordinator at the Department of Petroleum Engineering at Texas A&M University, said that more study is needed. Evidence that the wells fracked with propane are more productive is “sort of anecdotal data,” he said.

As for the risks of handling flammable material like propane, “Our industry is used to handling high-pressure gas and pumping flammable liquids,” Burnett said. “It’s not an issue if the equipment is designed properly.” The risks, he added, are “no more worrisome than a propane tank on the edge of town.”

Tudor said that his company had done 2,000 or more fracks by now, with only one “minor incident in Canada” in which a worker got blisters while some equipment was being shut off. Any leaks, Tuder said, can be “quarantine[d], and “we’re always hooked up to a flare” that can release the gas if needed. The company uses thermal cameras to monitor “hot areas” remotely.

As GasFrac’s technology spreads, other companies are also trying to use less water. In testimony last month before the joint hearing of the House Natural Resources and House Energy Resources committees, Glenn Gesoff, an official with BP who also chairs the water committee of the Texas Oil and Gas Association, told lawmakers that there were “a number of tests going on” in waterless fracking and fracking that uses significantly less water. In addition to propane, he said, work is ongoing with carbon dioxide and nitrogen.

“They’re in the development phase,” Gesoff said. “There are some safety concerns.”

Marathon Oil has begun using a new formula, which it describes as a guar mix commonly used in ice cream and other food products,” to reduce its water use. Guar is a small bean that can thicken water, and the  thicker fluid can carry the sand and other elements “while simultaneously using less water,” said Lee Warren, a Marathon Oil spokesman, in an email.

Over the last 18 months, she said, Marathon has cut its water use by 45 percent per well.

Terrence Henry of StateImpact Texas contributed reporting.

Comments

  • Joseph mcwee

    Gasfrac energy is the future.. It truely is the future apple of fracking .. Anyone owning shares of this company now will be well pleased in a few years down the road. THAT’S FOR SURE.

    • http://www.facebook.com/brownscustom Erwin Dale Brown

      Not really, not ever. All the people in western Bradford County PA got screwed with the conventional fracking. If the more expensive process is used the land owners pay back will be very much smaller than the screwing the PA people took.

      • jim

        I liked the screwing i got, being $2000. per acre and the royalties have not started yet.Butler County

  • Reeder

    It would be interesting to know what the percent recovery
    would be. Recovery from water frack tops
    out at about 10%, perhaps the lowest in the petroleum industry.

  • Dystopia

    “Now along comes propane fracking. How does this work ? Large quantities of liquid propane (expensive and in limited supply) and some Butane also, are turned into a gel by mixing and reacting with a diester phosphoric acid gelling agent. Then the gel is mixed with sand and secret, proprietary chemicals to form a hydraulic fluid.
    This gelled hydraulic fluid is then forced down the perforated well bore exactly in the same manner as the slick water is under the conventional method. Once the rock is fractured, the high pressure is released. This causes the gel to flash back into gaseous propane. The propane gas, and the methane gas, now come roaring back up the well bore as a mixed, high explosive gas. Here they are controlled, it is hoped, by a blowout preventer, and are gradually separated into the two gasses.”
    http://williamahuston.blogspot.com/2012/04/truth-about-fracking-with-propane.html

    You people really don’t care about your kids future do you? I hope your kids thank you for poisoning their future for a few bucks and I’m extremely glad I was smart enough not to have any…
    Enjoy your poisoned planet kids!

    • Fixit

      Propane is already produced from many gas wells, and is one of several products already being separated in natural gas processing.

      The mixture in the well contains no air or oxygen, so it is not explosive even though it can be under great pressure. Propane is a liquid at 135psi, so no “flashing” or “roaring back” from the frack fluid is involved.

      Regarding kids and poisoned planets, more electricity is now produced in the USA with natural gas than with coal. As an energy source, methane has much less carbon in it than coal, and therefore a natural gas plant produces much less carbon dioxide than coal plants do, not to mention soot, mercury, sulfur, etc. In fact, it’s been reported that the US already has it’s carbon emissions almost back to 1990 levels, a far better performance than most of the nations that actually signed the climate treaty.

      • Kim Feil

        And all the methane leaks speed up global warming…kids thank your parents for not fighting this…thank your parents for not pushing for renewable energy sources.

        • Peter Locke

          You’re supposed to BURN the methane. What you seem to see is digging a hole so that you can spend time and money filling it in again. LOL…at you.

    • sledneck900

      dude u really gotta get over this polution thing. its the way of life now. every luxury that u personally enjoy and i mean every damn luxury comes with the polution. so suck it up shut the hell up make money while u can then move to a quiet place with no industry around

  • http://www.facebook.com/brownscustom Erwin Dale Brown

    If the gas is so valuable there is no reason to be wasting it get more gas. Have you thought about how much of that frack-gas will also be released into the sky along with the massive amount of methane from each well ? We have just found a way to make a really bad thing very much worse.

    • Fixit

      Almost none of it gets released into the air. Propane is heavier than air, so if released, it does not rise in the atmosphere and it is not a greenhouse gas.

      The purpose of a gas well is to capture natural gas, not release it. Propane is much more easily recovered in natural gas processing than frack water.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000211231071 John Viotto

        Two of the business issues I have read about the company GasFrac are executive management was poor. I believe Board fired all executives except the CFO. The other business issue is a logistical challenge. Where should the rigs be demographically positioned. The number of rigs is limited. As are the number of trained operators are limited. I have yet to see results of petro gel tracking vs water or other fracking methods regarding cost, productivity and environmental impact. I have called gastric and their communication was they are gathering data from each project. No mention of when results will be published.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000211231071 John Viotto

      I honestly would like to have an intelligent discussion on the pros/cons of water and petro gel fracking. When emotions are used as a debate point or complaint, then the learning process is nullified. I do not want to limit a finite resource as water. I also do not desire to contribute to negatively impacting our environment. I do want to learn about this subject as I am learning more about water desalination. On this subject, there is a big project going on in the Virgin Islands. I also am quite interested in water reclamation. Here in Florida, we have dry summers. We also have numerous thunderstorms during the year. The runoff of water is astounding ( I am originally from Connecticut). I have been looking into current and emerging technologies for residential use.

  • Dystopia

    Anyone curious how propane is produced?
    Nope, the black hole of asininity is astounding.
    The only unlimited resource humans have is stupidity.

    • Fixit

      Propane comes from natural gas wells. We buy it at Walmart for our gas grills.

    • baygreen

      YOU SEEM TO HAVE A LOT OF YOUR UNLIMITED RESOURCE. GO CUT SOME TREE’S DOWN OR START A NEW COAL ROUTE INSTEAD OF THE OLD MILK MAN ROUTE, FARMERS CAN’T EVEN DRINK FRESH MILK UNLESS ONE OF THE DUPLICATED GOVT. PROGRAMS GETS TO PUT THE STEROIDS IN IT, OH AND DON’T FORGET TO LOOK IN THE MIRROR YOU COMMENT FITS YOU WELL, WHEN DID YOU STOP WATCHING THE BEVERLY HILL BILLIES OR DO YOU THINK JED AND GRANNY ARE STILL IN YOUR CEMENT POND, BUT PEOPLE LIKE YOU DON’T LET MIRRORS IN THERE HOUSE THEY MIGHT SEE A SHADOW. HOPE YOU GET SOME MEDICAL HELP WE ARE DOING PRETTY GOOD IN BRADFORD THE PEOPLE GOT MAD BECAUSE THERE LAND WAS NOT ON THE RIGHT PLOT NOT BECAUSE AND THERE NEIGHBOR GOT A CHECK DON’T FORGET TO LOOK IN YOUR MIRROR! I DID PUT THIS IN LARGE PRINT SO YOU COULD SEE IT THROUGH YOUR GREED

  • smithrj

    Why, with the high price of propane, writers to this comment section suppose that the propane would be released to the atmosphere, rather than collected? That is the advantage of propane fracking, nothing is released, all goes into the gas pipeline to be processed and sold. Yes propane costs more, but there is limited recovery expense to offset the additional initial expense,

  • Kim Feil

    Don’t forget that waterless gel/propane/frac still has ungodly amounts of toxic, p r o d u c e d water that still needs permanent,safe disposal into injection wells where earthquakes can be induced and the casings can be risked and then our water tables can be risked with leaking casings.

    • Fixit

      People who pump millions of gallons into oil and gas wells always have produced water. People who frack with Gasfrac never have this problem except in wells that produce water. It’s a well problem, not a fracking problem.

      • Fixit

        That should read “People who pump millions of gallons OF WATER into oil and gas wells.”

  • baygreen

    Gasfrac is about as simple as it gets because it works seems to be a problem for those that like to make water dirty and then pretend to clean it so they can charge you to put it in bottles to drink and then throw the empty plastic bottles away in the land fill. Go t China and ride a bike with Obama. Go drink there water!

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