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Waterless fracking technique makes its debut in Ohio

A GasFrac operation in Alberta (PR photo)

Some 8,000 feet deep and 450 million years old, the Utica Shale has a lot of petroleum — crude oil, natural gas and byproducts like ethane.

Although no one really knows how much there is, oil and gas companies are flocking to eastern Ohio, home to some of the shale’s most amenable portions.

“Right now we’re still in an exploratory phase,” said Brian Hickman, a spokesperson for the Ohio Oil and Gas Association.

It’s also an experimental phase for the technology that makes shale extraction possible, Hickman said. Companies that have used horizontal hydraulic fracturing successfully in the Marcellus, Barnett and other shales are still trying to figure out how to best use it in the Utica.

In Ohio, 65 Utica Shale wells have been drilled so far, each requiring 5 to 6 million gallons of water, said Heidi Hetzel-Evans, a spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

But as Utica drillers analyze early results, at least one company thinks water might be unnecessary — or even a hindrance — and that using a waterless, propane-based form of fracking called LPG might be more efficient and profitable.

That 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.

Fracking, of course, is enormously controversial, mostly because of concerns of potential risks to water supplies. LPG fracking eliminates an entire wastestream — the copious amounts of toxic “flowback” water that has to be reused, treated and discharged into waterways, or disposed of in deep injection wells, which have been linked to earthquakes in Ohio.

But why would companies using hydro-fracking — which has proven to be pretty profitable — be interested in using a niche technology like LPG?

“I think the results they’re getting [in the Utica] are sub-par, and they’re looking for an alternative,” said Kyle Ward, GasFrac’s spokesperson.

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.

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 our so superior to what people have done before, they’re not interested in sharing those results.”

In Ohio, GasFrac’s spokesman said the company hopes to start the Utica wells by the end of the month.

It could be a proving ground for the technology. “It’s no secret we’re going to the Utica,” Zeke Zeringue, GasFrac’s CEO, said in a May conference call. “Obviously we hope that leads to an establishment of some sort of base of operations.”

While GasFrac has been keen to note in its recent marketing efforts that LPG uses no water, the technology’s profitability will ultimately determine its potential, said Michael Mazar, a financial analyst who follows the company for BMO Capital Markets.

“The environmental benefits are secondary.”

CORRECTION: Because of an editor’s error, Robert Lestz was incorrectly identified as GasFrac’s founder in an earlier version of this story.

Portions of this story were originally reported for InsideClimateNews.

Anthony Brino is a Springfield, Illinois-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Allegheny Front, InsideClimate News and Illinois Statehouse News.

Comments (7)

Does anyone know if this new method of fracking also uses silica sand in the process?

By Loni Kemp on May 15, 2012

Interested to see how those wells to be fracked with LPG turn out. Do you know when drilling will start, if it hasn’t already?

By Joel Parshall on May 16, 2012

Either Devon or Range Resources is currently using the technology in the Ohio Utica shale. The gelled LPG can transport any kind of proppant whether sand or ceramic. No other additives are needed.

By Tom Pendergast on May 20, 2012

This company has drilled over 1500 wells with the propane process over the past 1 1/2 years. They drilled one well in central New York state and 2 demo wells in Texas. The original name for this company was Canadian Fracmaster. They have operated in the USSR to increase oil production from each well when fracing. Since propane is found mixed with methane and butane as natural gas.LPG does not pollute and when used for fracing by this company, all the propane is recovered when the combined gases are sucked out and sent to a refinery. More oil is also recovered from each well with this process, so in the long run, it saves money and time over any other process for recovering oil and gas from each well.

By MARk SMYTH on May 21, 2012

This seems like a good alternative to hydrofracking, however I wonder how they did on 1)Safety aspects of the 1500 wells fracked 2)Contamination of surface waters by gel. 3)in terms of $$, how does GasFrac compare with hydrofracking.

By Ajaz on May 22, 2012

I think the primary advantage for the Canadians is that the gel doesn’t freeze in arctic temperatures. I’ve read that somewhere. Also I recall that recapture of the propane used isn’t a 100%. But I may be wrong.

By jd on May 22, 2012

This is an interesting initiative but careful research should be done to see if pollution of the water in the area occurs. It seems as if this is unlikely but that sort of pressure produces odd phenomena. Fracking, in general is the most dangerous form of fossil fuel extraction yet developed and should be used only as a last resort and in areas where drinking water is not harmed.

By Bill Harwood on Jun 1, 2012