EXCLUSIVE - Propane, GasFrac's CTO, and the cure for water fracking
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In the wake of higher oil prices and environmental concerns about greenhouse emissions, natural gas has emerged as a bridge between modern dependence on coal-fired plants and the future energy sustainability of wind and solar power. However, the primary technique utilized for gas drilling, hydraulic fracturing, is now in the midst of a fierce debate over its environmental and economic cost.
Commonly referred to as ‘fracking,’ the general technique involves blasting liquid into the ground to crack open rocks, filling them with proppant (which ‘props’ them open) and extracting the gas within. Shale gas drilling in particular was once considered unfeasible before the advent of George P. Mitchell’s water fracturing (hydrofracking) technique. Now, in just 11 years, shale gas has grown from 1 percent of American natural gas supplies to 30 percent, leaving the United States with a 100-year supply of natural gas.
The main controversy surrounding traditional hydrofracking is that it can contaminate water supplies and cause minor earthquakes in surrounding areas. While hydrofracking proponents claim that only irresponsible rogue companies are responsible for such atrocities, the technique of blasting water into the ground does create an economically costly and environmentally damaging waste management hazard when it returns to the surface filled with chemicals and minor radioactivity. Improperly handled, the harm to the surrounding environment and human population has blackened the reputation of fracking.
A new waterless fracking technique, however, offers a potentially less risky alternative. Developed in Canada by a small energy company called GasFrac, ‘gas fracking’ uses a thick gel made from propane in lieu of water. Much like traditional water-based hydrofracking, it cracks rocks open and transports proppant to keep them open. However, rather than returning to the surface as unusable liquid waste, the propane gel is transformed by the pressure and heat into a vapor that is free of chemicals and radioactivity. The liquid petroleum gas (LPG) naturally interacts with the minerals, given its solubility with natural gas and miscibility with crude oils. Thus, gas fracking waste can actually be reused and resold, increasing profits and eliminating the need for careful and costly disposal.
Gas fracking, however, has been called into question as potentially hazardous, most notably by Ronald E. Bishop, Ph.D., C.H.O., Chemistry and Biochemistry Department of State University of New York. He claims, “The use of propane introduces new problems with controlling a pressurized liquid that quickly turns to a gas when the pressure is released. It’s not easy or cheap, and a lot of gas escapes into the atmosphere. This is a greenhouse gas, though not as potent as carbon dioxide (another [so-called] ‘green’ fracking fluid candidate) or methane.” In other words, he believes propane fracking may simply trade ground and water pollution for air pollution.
Ronald Bishop further criticizes the process of creating the propane gel, stating, “First, in order to suspend sand or other proppants, liquid propane needs to be thickened, typically by foaming agents like peroxide. Using peroxide requires the addition of even more corrosion inhibitors than when water is used, and biocides are still required to control microbe growth.”
To test Ronald Bishop’s science against GasFrac’s science, we reached out to GasFrac CTO, Robert Lestz, and gave him an opportunity to refute Ronald Bishop’s criticisms. Robert quickly pointed out to us via e-mail that, “In regards to [the statement that] propane ‘is a greenhouse gas...’ this is not factual. In fact, propane is not a greenhouse gas and you find the US DOE stating that fact on their website in the last topic shown on this page: http://www.afdc.energy.gov/afdc/vehicles/emissions_propane.html.”
In a followup phone interview with Robert Lestz, he explained to us that GasFrac’s propane fracking procedure eliminates emission issues by maintaining the liquid form of the propane. He says, “Propane will flash to a vapor under atmospheric conditions, but its pressure is kept such that it never goes to a vapor. They use a nitrogen blanket that covers all the vessels... that maintains the pressure to keep it always a liquid, and nitro is a non-flammable ingredient.” The flammability of propane, however, is taken into account for safety precautions. Dangers like explosions are avoided due to tightly controlled technology and methodologies and workers are never allowed near the “hot zone” during propane fracking, just in case of malfunction. The chances of human casualties or injuries are thus almost non-existent.
As to Ronald Bishop’s claim about peroxide being used in the thickening of the liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), he says, “We do not use peroxides at all. We just add phosphates as a gelling agent, magnesium oxide as a breaker, and iron sulfate as an activator.” The reason for thickening the propane has to due with its lower viscosity compared to water, but once the gel is made, LPG’s higher viscosity makes it a superior transport for the proppant required to keep rocks cracked open.
GasFrac’s Robert Lestz explains, “Viscosity can be built and proppant will stay suspended in the fluid. Like a stream, if the stream is going very slow, all the sand in it settles down, but when the stream flows at a high rate, it can carry gravel downstream. Water fracking relies on high rates of flow, due to viscosity, which leads to damaging environmental impact with more pumps, emissions, noise, and diesel. Propane fracking doesn’t have that issue, because the viscosity of thickened propane gel does most of the work.”
Much of the advantage that propane has over water as a fracturing fluid stems from the fact that propane is naturally found in the reservoirs to start with. As Robert Lestz elaborated to us, “It’s a naturally compatible product to the reservoir, it doesn’t release the ‘nasties’ as I like to call them - the salts and radionuclides stay in the ground, where they’re best left in the ground. Propane flows back as propane, a hydrocarbon fluid.”
So, what about Ronald Bishop, Ph.D., C.H.O., Chemistry and Biochemistry Department of State University of New York? When we presented him with GasFrac’s refutations, Ronald Bishop conceded that peroxide is not used in gelling. He said, in regards to his quote about peroxides being used in gelling, “The technology and my grasp of it have evolved since that time. Early efforts to gel LPG with peroxide produced pretty disappointing results, and that agent is rarely, if ever, used for that any more.”
However, Dr. Bishop is still wary and he added that the natural viscosity of propane gel is, “...lower than that of water, whether managed by a ‘gas blanket’, cryogenic or pneumatic equipment. To be used for proppant transport, either the proppant must be coated to increase its buoyancy or the carrier fluid must be gelled.” This agrees with Robert Lestz’s reasons for why propane requires thickening. Ronald then went on to explain in an e-mail to us that one of the agents listed in a GasFrac early promotional brochure is, “...an aluminum sulfate complex of tributylphosphate.” He says this has been used before as a nerve gas stimulant, and that its usage, “...should have come as no surprise; its primary developer was a retired military officer, and this agent was used extensively by the... [Defense] Intelligence Agency.”
This particular gelling agent has apparently been used elsewhere, and according to Ronald Bishop, “...has been enjoying increased popularity with shale gas developers over the last couple of years.” How this can present a danger was not clarified, however, other than the fact that it has been used as a nerve gas stimulant before. Given propane fracking’s procedures for keeping workers away from the hot zone in case of explosions, if nerve gas stimulants are indeed used as a chemical agent, the likelihood of their affecting people seems low.
As to the classification of propane emissions as a greenhouse gas and Robert Lestz’s citation of the AFDC, Ronald Bishop explained to us, “The Alternative Fuels Data Center article is incomplete with respect to a couple of issues. First, LPG is not pure propane, but contains small amounts of other hydrocarbons (including methane), water, and oxides of sulfur and nitrogen. Also, their data source for information on propane is a report from the Propane Education and Research Council. Again, my issue is not with the data they present, but with what they withhold.”
Despite some minor critiques, such an innovative technique may seem like an obvious replacement for water-based fracturing, given the comparative cost-effectiveness and lack of hazardous waste production. However, the fracking industry is very cautious to adopt new methods without first seeing them thoroughly tested. Also, years of research and development have gone into fine-tuning hydrofracking, leading water-based fracturing investors to feel remiss about abandoning such costly infrastructure and progress. Furthermore, several drawbacks to gas fracking include the initial cost, which is higher than traditional hydrofracking, and the flammability of propane, which requires specialized equipment to negate the risk of explosions.
Aside from its environmental safety, however, GasFrac’s technique also has economical appeal. Robert Lestz spoke to us on how, “Operators who appreciate value are the ones that are very attracted to this technology. The reason why I say value, is that operators are recognizing an increase in reserve recoveries of 25% with our technique. Given an oil well that can produce 100,000 barrels, now they can produce 125,000 barrels.” We asked why propane fracking delivers such an increase in production and Robert Lestz attributes it to “the compatibility with how propane interacts with the minerals and rocks in the ground. The propane is natural, whereas water interacts with rock materials called ‘clays’ that act like sponges and then block the ability of the gas to flow. So, while water and LPG both create this frac length, the difference is that at the end of the day, everything you create with the LPG, you get to use.”
When we asked him about potential competitors in the nascent gas fracking industry, he explained, “Really, there are no other competitors at this time. We’re a technology company, whereas most of the industry has become a commodity. The reason we see ourselves as a tech company is we offer a very unique solution, that not only addresses economic profit, but also addresses environmental sustainability.” Given the success of propane fracking in both oil and natural gas drilling, GasFrac is poised to be a dominant force in the energy industry.
Despite industry uncertainty about gas fracking, Chevron, no small player, recently began testing its efficacy in various shale wells. They used GasFrac’s liquid petroleum gas (LPG) methods in five natural gas wells located in the Piceance Basin. The willingness of a major energy company like Chevron to test gas fracking, coupled with increased public outcry against hydrofracking, bodes well for its potential widespread use. GasFrac is confident as well, as Robert Lestz explained to us that they have 29 jobs for Chevron in Colorado and that “they were pleased with the operational performance and how it was done safely and incident-free.”
GasFrac has recently initiated a project with another major oil company, but asked that we not disclose the identity of this new partner. It seems GasFrac’s propane fracking is already becoming quite coveted in the energy industry. Other publicly known partners include a multi-year contract with Husky and continued work with various Canadian companies. Robert Lestz explains that Canada tends to be a touchstone for the oil and natural gas industry in the United States, since they often test new technology before the more cautious giants.
So, while GasFrac is still awaiting a patent in the United States, its technique has already been used over 1,000 times in various Canadian provinces like Alberta and New Brunswick, as well as several U.S. test wells in places like Texas, Colorado, and Oklahoma. David Burnett, a professor of petroleum engineering at Texas A&M University, believes gas fracking makes sense, because, “From a reservoir engineering perspective, there is no reason this would not be effective.”
The heightened level of environmental scrutiny will keep applying pressure on the energy companies to develop less destructive means of obtaining the natural gas, as evidenced by the recent reluctance of the Delaware River Basin Commission to allow shale fracking in its domain. Given that political forces and social outcry can limit further fracking ventures, it is unlikely that energy companies will completely disregard environmental impact in their profit calculations. In this light, GasFrac’s value is incomparable.
When we asked why this technique has not been extensively developed before by companies other than GasFrac, Robert Lestz explained to us that, “Pumping propane and viscosifying it are not earth-shattering, but it’s how our processes, people and equipment come together that creates a very sophisticated uniqueness.”