Propane backing fracking process with environmentally sound alternative

May 4, 2012 By    

Pitched as a safe and ecologically appropriate alternative to conventional fracking techniques, propane is the key ingredient in a patented waterless process being increasingly applied for extracting oil and natural gas from hydraulic fracturing wells.

Described as providing heightened efficiency when compared to traditional fracking methods and much more protective of the environment, the mixture – consisting of gelled propane along with other proprietary technologies – uses no water, thus presenting yet another benefit when drilling in regions where drought conditions are an issue.

And unlike water mixtures that require expensive and controversial disposal strategies, the LP gas product can be captured and reused.

“You get maximum results from what the well is capable of doing,” says Emmett Capt, vice president of GasFrac Energy Services Inc., which is based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Capt says the high volumes of water required for traditional fracking cause unwanted underground swelling at well sites with a high clay content, necessitating additional hazardous compounds to remedy the problem. “We replace that water with liquid propane,” he reports, “and propane doesn’t have an effect on clay swelling at all; it doesn’t damage the formation.”

Preparing the gelled propane slurry “is not at all complicated,” he notes. “We add some chemicals to gel it up and we use what we call a boost pump.” The material is stored onsite in “bulkers,” a series of tanks holding 19,000 gallons apiece. “We’ll have anywhere from eight to 10 of them on location for a frack job.” More than 50 of the tanks are currently being utilized in the United States.

Capt says the company anticipates purchasing 50 million gallons of propane this year. “That’s all related to how much drilling activity is taking place.”

The LP gas is delivered by marketers via transports to the drilling site, where it is then converted into the gel material and subsequently pumped into the well for extracting the oil or natural gas. (At this point, oil is a more economical commodity for fracking because of an ongoing glut of natural gas, according to Capt.)

“We have several loads come to a location,” says Capt, adding that selecting a suitable propane marketer is crucial because of the specialized logistical challenges involved. The provider needs to have the necessary amounts of propane on hand plus the ability to get the product to the site in a timely fashion when GasFrac and the driller need it. Diverting the load to other customers during a cold snap or other weather-related delays are not acceptable.

“You’ve seen what happens in the winter,” Capt says, referring to the all-too-familiar shortages and bottlenecks that arise, “so we need a reliable company.”

Coordinated marketer support
A main supplier of propane to GasFrac is Ferrellgas’ wholesale division, Ferrell North America.

“The support required for propane fracking is very different from traditional propane deliveries,” explains Ferrell North America President Tom Van Buren.

“The asset requirements – adapting to changes in well-site needs and the labor coordination – is very detailed, and it’s all done being on call to coordinate changes 24/7.

“GasFrac expects exceptional safe and reliable support, and at Ferrell North America we pride ourselves in providing such service, so we enjoy working together in this exciting new application that is truly revolutionary,” Van Buren notes.

Ferrell North America experienced “no hesitancy at all” in venturing into the application “as we were already familiar with propane fracking over the last couple years from researching GasFrac operations and their success in Canada,” according to Van Buren. “We believe our vast experience in already providing logistics support in the oil field service industry, like the Bakken Shale, was a great fit for both.”

Pumping up production
GasFrac recently signed a two-year extension of an agreement with driller BlackBrush Oil and Gas to apply its methods in the Carrizo Springs section of the Eagle Ford formation in south Texas.

BlackBrush, which has more than 900 drillable locations in Eagle Ford and other area oil zones, was one of the first American oil and gas production firms to use the “stimulation technology” when GasFrac expanded into the United States in mid-2011.

“BlackBrush looked extensively for an alternative to water fracks as we recognized a definite problem in formation damage contributed by introducing water in the fracking process to the formations we are actively developing,” says BlackBrush co-CEO Phil Mezey. “Results from our first well with GasFrac has seen oil production at a sustainable rate weeks earlier than with the standard water frack, and we are seeing huge savings on disposal of frack fluids.”

GasFrac is in the process of opening a major operations hub in the San Antonio area to help facilitate the growth and expansion of its south Texas presence.

A technical cooperation agreement between GasFrac and Green Field Energy Services has recently been established that will unite the two firms’ respective production enhancement offerings. Green Field Energy Services provides its clients with comprehensive well-service capabilities.

“We have the potential through this agreement to develop a second-to-none well stimulation technology for our customers,” says Zeke Zeringue, GasFrac’s president and CEO. “It will take some time to solve the engineering challenges of combining our system with Green Field’s, but there’s a likely win-win here for both our companies.”

“Combining GasFrac’s waterless fracturing technology along with [our] clean turbine pumping technology provides customers with the industry’s most environmentally friendly hydraulic fracturing solution,” says Green Field President Rick Fontova.

“Since our gel regains permeability with the hydrocarbons we stimulate, we have the ability to recover 100 percent of the fracturing fluids within days of stimulation,” Zeringue explains. “This phenomenon creates the majority of the economic and environmental benefits through the elimination of cleanup, disposal of waste and post-job truck traffic, meanwhile creating much higher initial production levels along with the ability to recapture our fluids for reuse with the proper facilities.”

Laying iron
About 20 GasFrac crew members are dispatched to a given drilling site, and employee educational efforts last about six months. “It takes time,” says the company’s Capt. “It’s like on-the-job training; we’ll mentor him.”

The work can be physically demanding as “we lay discharge iron,” which is a series of 10-foot sections of pipe weighing about 200 pounds apiece.

“The well is already drilled, and we come in to complete the [stimulation] process” that releases the oil or natural gas from the ground for collection.

“We follow the safety guidelines that the propane industry has set up,” Capt continues. “When we [initially] set up our equipment, we got with the propane industry and adopted their standards.”

Capt recounts an encounter he had with a government official: “We were up there fracking away in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and the city council came out and they were impressed with our operation.” One of the legislators observed, however, that the materials involved “look flammable.” To which Capt replied, “Everything coming out of that well had better be flammable – or we’re in the wrong business.”


EPA finalizes first federal air rules for hydraulic fracking
In response to a court deadline, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said it finalized standards to reduce air pollution associated with oil and natural gas production.

The updated standards, required by the Clean Air Act, were created with the feedback from a range of stakeholders, including the public, public health groups, states and industry. The final standards reduce implementation costs while also ensuring they are achievable and can be met by relying on proven, cost-effective technologies as well as processes already in use at about half of the fractured natural gas wells in the United States, EPA said.

According to EPA, these technologies will not only reduce 95 percent of the harmful emissions from these wells that contribute to smog and lead to health impacts, they also will enable companies to collect additional natural gas that can be sold.

When natural gas is produced, some of the gas escapes the well and may not be captured by the producing company. These gases can pollute the air and, as a result, threaten public health, the EPA said. Consistent with states that have already put in place similar requirements, the updated EPA standards released include the first federal air rules for natural gas wells that are hydraulically fractured. Together these rules will result in $11 to $19 million in savings for industry each year, EPA said. In addition to cutting pollution at the wellhead, EPA’s final standards also address emissions from storage tanks and other equipment.

The final rule establishes a phase-in period that will ensure emissions-reduction technology is broadly available. During the first phase, until January 2015, owners and operators must either flare their emissions or use emissions-reduction technology called “green completions,” technologies that are already widely deployed at wells. In 2015, all new fractured wells will be required to use green completions. The final rule does not require new federal permits.

An estimated 13,000 new and existing natural gas wells are fractured or refractured each year. As those wells are being prepared for production, they emit volatile organic compounds, which contribute to smog formation and air toxics, including benzene and hexane, which can cause cancer and other serious health effects, according to the EPA. In addition, the rule is expected to yield a significant environmental co-benefit by reducing methane, the primary constituent of natural gas. Methane, when released directly to the atmosphere, is a potent greenhouse gas – more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, EPA said.


New federal partnership to coordinate research of shale gas and oil resources
A new partnership among three federal agencies aims to coordinate and align all research associated with the development and continued expansion of unconventional natural gas and oil resources in the United States.

By leveraging their core competencies and strengths, the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of the Interior said they will enhance efforts to explore the significant new resource development opportunities made possible in recent years by hydraulic fracturing and other new technologies.

U.S. oil and natural gas production has risen each year since 2008, while oil imports have fallen since 2005, the EPA noted in announcing the partnership. The Obama administration believes these domestic natural gas and oil resources will continue to play a key role in America’s energy future, and it wants to ensure production happens safely and responsibly while growing the public’s confidence in the process.

The partnership will identify the highest-priority challenges and research topics associated with the impacts of developing unconventional shale gas and oil resources and areas where it can collaborate most effectively to provide results and supporting technologies.

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