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Efficiency gains key to dispel fracking fears

Industry aims to increase production while easing environmental concerns

Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) – the key to unconventional-gas production – is also the biggest barrier to gaining access to centuries of potential reserves worldwide. But refinements to a basic technique that is more than 60 years old will help increase production, while easing environmental concerns.

The problem with fracking is that it’s not very efficient. According to Kyle Holdenfield, Schlumberger’s vice-president of unconventional resources, 15-18% of frack stages in a typical well produce no gas at all. Of the fracks that do penetrate shale gas reservoirs, up to 80% are equally unproductive, he told the World Shale Gas conference in Houston this week.

The consequence is that the “brute force” method requires ever increasing amounts of horsepower and water to attain economic rates of production, requiring dozens of trucks and pumps capable of delivering tens of thousands of horsepower to slam millions of pounds of sand into the tight rock formations and make them flow. But it might be akin to using a sledge hammer to crack a walnut. “We’re talking about reservoir quality versus completion quality,” he says.

More with less

Doing more with less may be the key to reducing water use and easing fears over groundwater contamination. Tackling those issues has become the goal of an industry that has sprung up almost overnight – US shale-gas production has gone from virtually nothing five years ago to 4.8 trillion cf last year, nearly 18% of total output, and is expected to produce half of all the gas in North America by 2020.

There is little doubt that the resource base is extremely large, but also extremely difficult to produce. Indeed, most estimates of reserves are based on recovery factors of 10% or less. Increasing that number by even 6 percentage points results in an almost doubling of recovered resources.

It’s still early days and the basic technology has a long way to go in terms of refinement. But new improvements promise to use little or no water at all, while dramatically increasing production.

According to Robert Lestz, chief technology officer for Calgary-based GasFrac Energy Services, water is less than ideal for fracking. His company claims initial production increases of more than 10 times by substituting liquefied petroleum gases for water in frack operations. Unlike water, propane absorbs into the surrounding rock layers and causes less formation damage, which in turn increases inflows.

GasFrac claimed test wells in Canada flowed initial rate of more than 1,000 barrels of oil equivalent a day (boe/d), compared with 100 boe/d for conventional fracks, and sustained those rates for longer periods, justifying the higher cost of fracking with propane. In addition, water-handling and disposal costs were significantly reduced or even eliminated. “We’re in the oil and gas business, not the water business,” he said.

Safety concerns linger

Despite promising initial results, many concerns linger over the basic safety of the GasFrac process. Earlier this spring, an explosion and flash fire at a well site operated by Husky Energy injured 11 people, two of them seriously. As a result, several large operators in Canada have been reluctant to use the process, despite the obvious benefits. Nonetheless, conference organisers presented GasFrac with a special award for innovation.

Whether it will be enough to prevent looming US federal regulations is a moot point. Michael Shapiro from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) vowed that the department will implement new rules to regulate fracking by 2014. Until now, fracking has been regulated by a hodge-podge of conflicting state rules governing water recycling and other factors. Like the oil companies, the EPA is banking on technology to carry the day. “The best science and technology is key,” Shapiro said.

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