An unnamed driller in Ohio has asked Canadian company GASFRAC to use its waterless fracking technology to drill two trial wells in the Utica Shale. You may recall that a group of Tioga County, NY landowners with a collective 135,000 Marcellus Shale acres were set to use GASFRAC’s LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) technology to jump start drilling in New York, but the lease and royalty deal with the driller, eCORP, fell through (no fault of GASFRAC, see this MDN story).
Will GASFRAC’s innovative technology do the trick in Ohio’s Utica Shale? There’s some disagreement on that point.
[The] currently unnamed company has asked GasFrac Energy Services to frack two Utica trial wells in Ohio using LPG, short for liquid petroleum gas. Founded in 2006 and based in Calgary, GasFrac is apparently the world’s only provider of LPG fracking and has used it about 1,200 times, mostly in western Canada and also in Texas and Colorado.
LPG uses a mixture of propane (and occasionally some butane) that’s pressurized to the consistency of a gel. Then, like water-based fracking, it’s injected through pipes at high pressure underground to release oil and gas by cracking open rocks using sand (or another proppant).
Unlike water, though, LPG naturally mixes with petroleum, so it returns to the surface with the oil or gas being extracted. And since LPG is electrically neutral and lacks much friction, it doesn’t dissolve any salts, heavy metals or radioactive compounds — compared to water, in which these things return to the surface and make a typically toxic mixture even more so.*
But will LPG fracking get the job done deep in the Utica Shale?
GasFrac argues that LPG, compared to hydro-fracking, is both more environmentally sustainable and economically efficient in the the long run — a claim that has drawn some skepticism.
Terry Engelder, the Penn State University geologist who’s been dubbed the “Godfather” of the Marcellus Shale for his calculations of the rock layer’s natural gas potential, says water is the “mechanically most efficient fluid for breaking apart rock.”
Anthony Ingraffea, a Cornell University engineer who spent 20 years researching fracking for Schlumberger, one of the largest fracking companies, said: “I’ll give [GasFrac] credit that geochemically, it’s much better to use a hydrocarbon [propane and butane] to stimulate a reservoir…But I’m not sure how well this technique will work in a high volume long lateral shale formation [like the Utica or Marcellus shales] because they haven’t released proprietary data. That’s still unknown.”
Petroleum engineers in the 1960s and 1970s tried using propane fracking, but the potential for explosion — which is still a risk today, if better managed — left the technology uneconomical.*
Has GASFRACK used their technology in the U.S. before?
Last year, the petroleum giant Chevron used LPG to frack several natural gas wells in the Piceance Basin, home to several lucrative coal, oil and natural gas deposits in Colorado. The company’s annual report, while not mentioning GasFrac, noted that LPG “significantly increases production while minimizing water usage.”
The company BlackBrush recently announced a two-year contract with GasFrac in Texas’ oil-rich Eagle Ford Shale.
Offering an explanation for the dearth of public data on GasFrac’s work for other companies, Robert Lestz, the company’s chief tech officer, said, “Because our results are so superior to what people have done before, they’re not interested in sharing those results.”*
So there you have it. GASFRAC says it not only works, it works so well everyone who uses it wants to keep it a secret so their competitors won’t catch wind of it and use it too. Marketing hype? Or reality? Time will tell.
GASFRAC says it plans to start fracking the Utica Shale wells by the end of May.
*Crain’s Cleveland Business/Midwest Energy News (May 15, 2012) – Waterless fracking technique makes its debut in Ohio