WALL STREET JOURNAL: Energy Companies Try New Methods to Address Fracking Complaints
Frackers are trying to clean up their act.
Thanks to hydraulic fracturing—a technology that uses water, chemicals and sand to unlock oil and gas trapped in dense underground rocks—communities from Pennsylvania to North Dakota are experiencing a boom in energy production. But the industry is facing more intense pressure from communities and environmentalists over its role in increased air and water pollution.
In response, energy companies are pioneering new technologies to curb some of fracking’s worst offenses. They’re coming up with ways to cut methane seepage from their equipment, use excess gas that previously had been burned as waste to fuel drilling rigs, and put huge volumes of wastewater from fracking to work on new wells.
The efforts have even won some tentative plaudits from environmentalists. Mark Brownstein, who leads the Environmental Defense Fund’s efforts on natural gas, says companies should be required to do more to keep air and water clean. But he says there are some promising signs that companies are trying new things and revising certain processes, if only because they’ve realized it’s in their best interest.
“With the right technology, the right management practices and the right regulations properly enforced,” he says, “there are things we can do to reduce the risks that are associated with unconventional oil and gas development.”
Fracking involves blasting millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into a well to break apart dense rock so that oil and gas can flow to the surface through the new cracks. The industry’s use of fresh water, the difficulty of safely disposing of contaminated backwash and the relentless burning of natural gas from some drilling sites are lightning rods of controversy.
For instance, in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale, natural gas that’s produced along with crude oil is often burned because there aren’t enough pipelines to take it to market. Today more than a third of gas output in the state is flared, though the North Dakota Petroleum Council hopes new pipelines will help solve the problem by 2020.
To reduce flaring, energy companies are putting more natural gas to work. Norwegian oil company Statoil started piping natural gas from its wells to drilling rigs, a step that also replaces more expensive diesel fuel.
But this only works when the rigs are near gas wells. So, this year, Statoil started rolling out a mobile natural-gas compressor system developed by General Electric Co. and Ferus Natural Gas Fuels LP. After stripping out valuable liquids like propane, the “CNG-in-a-box” units compress natural gas and use it to fuel drilling rigs, fracking pumps, water heaters, and other oil field equipment. That could cut the amount of natural gas Statoil flares from the Bakken in half, says Lance Langford, Statoil’s vice president for Bakken production and development.
Some climate experts also say leaks from oil and gas equipment add to smog and could undercut the benefits of using more natural gas. Methane, for instance, is thought to contribute more to climate change than carbon dioxide.
To reduce leaks, Anadarko Petroleum Corp., Encana Corp., and Noble Energy Inc. worked with the Environmental Defense Fund on regulations the state of Colorado adopted earlier this year. The measures will require companies in Colorado to capture 95% of emissions from storage tanks, compressors and new wells. Encana says it already has reduced such emissions in a Wyoming oil field by about 80% in the past four years using equipment like vapor-recovery units and infrared monitors that spot methane seeping out from valves and other connections.
Waste Water Disposal
Just as urgent is disposing of billions of barrels of contaminated wastewater. The chemical- and salt-laden fluid that spews back to the surface after fracking cannot be disposed of just anywhere, and there is a lot of it: Somewhere between 10% and 50% of the water injected into the well comes back up in the first few weeks of a well’s life, says Marcus Gay, a research director at consulting firm IHS Energy. Underground water full of dissolved solids can be seven or eight times saltier than seawater and can bubble back up at a rate of five barrels a day.
The fluid is often stored in deep injection wells drilled in porous rock. But these have become controversial after being linked to an uptick in seismic activity in states such as Arkansas, Ohio, Colorado and Texas. And not all areas are suited to the wells—Pennsylvania has fewer than 10—forcing producers there to find other alternatives.
One approach is to treat fracking waste so that it can be used again. Nationwide, some 16% of fracking fluids are made of reused water, a figure IHS expects will double in the next 10 years.
National Oilwell Varco, NOV +1.48% one of the largest rig and equipment builders, last year signed an exclusive licensing agreement with Oasys Water Inc. for a desalination system that can purify wastewater to near drinkable quality.
Oasys Chief Executive Jim Matheson says the system will be deployed in Texas this summer. Initially, Mr. Matheson says, most oil and gas companies likely envision using recycled water to frack more wells. But someday, he says, treated water could be used for irrigation or could be discharged back into the environment.
“The water that comes out of our system is probably cleaner than the water that comes out of your taps,” Mr. Matheson says.
Oil-field-services companies are also rolling out specially designed fluids that allow more water to be reused.
Halliburton Co., for instance, provides a fracking fluid that is still effective when it contains higher concentrations of dissolved solids than typical fracking fluids—more than 300,000 parts per million compared with 50,000 ppm. The company estimates that its customers have reduced freshwater consumption by about 50 million gallons a month. “For all intents and purposes we can reuse water for fracking without doing any significant form of filtration,” says Steve Ingram, Halliburton’s manager for technology and marketing in North America.
Other companies are shifting from fresh to recycled or brackish water. When Apache Corp. began drilling more horizontal wells, which require much more water, in West Texas’ Permian Basin, shifting away from fresh water became an urgent problem. Thanks to chemical treatments and ceramic membranes to filter salt and other solids, less than half of the 40 million barrels of water the company used in the Permian Basin was fresh.
“Now we look at brackish water like it’s no big deal,” says Cal Cooper, director of emerging technology for Apache.
The next step could be using less water to begin with. GE is working on pressurizing gases like propane or carbon dioxide into gels or foams to replace water in fracking. Mike Bowman, who directs GE’s research in advanced sustainable-energy technology, says there are problems to solve before the technology can be widely adopted. But the appetite from customers is there, he says. Says Mr. Bowman, “The biggest environmental advantage is getting water out of the equation.”