New technology aims to replace fracking water with propane

Matt Richmond, Innovation Trail
May 25, 2012

During a tour of a drilling site in Northeastern Pennsylvania, Cabot Oil and Gas spokesman George Stark describes all the different companies that work on a well.

"Right today on the drilling phase, there are probably upwards of a dozen companies here, a dozen different experts in their field from those doing the drilling to those working the generator," said Stark.

Stark says on a typical day, there are more than two dozen workers on-site during each 12-hour shift. And that's just during the drilling phase.

"All that you see then leaves, because that's just the drilling. The completion and the production all happens when the drill rig goes away," said Stark.

After the rig is gone, that's when another company comes in to fracture the well. Halliburton and Schlumberger are the two biggest companies that come in at this stage.

They use anywhere from 2 to 8 million gallons of water for every well they frack. The water is used to carry the sand and chemicals that help break up shale deposits that contain the natural gas.

Now a Canadian company called Gasfrac is trying to change that by using propane instead of water.

Gasfrac officials say switching to propane offers some big advantages. Spokesman Kyle Ward says that, besides propane, there are only four ingredients in the company's fracking fluid, all of which decompose naturally. Not only that, all of the propane comes back out of the well whereas much of the water stays underground.

"So what we're doing basically is once we're gone, there's nothing in the hole except sand, I mean everything is gone," said Ward.

Ward says the propane that comes back up out of the well can be easily separated and sold or reused. That would solve one of hydrofracking¿s biggest problems.

In water-based fracking, millions of gallons of water come back out of the well mixed with salt and naturally occurring radioactive materials and the chemicals used in the fracking fluid.

"The propane fracturing would leave most of those naturally occurring constituents down in the shale," says Dave Yoxtheimer. He works with Penn State's Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research. He says propane offers a solution for the challenge posed by wastewater treatment. But he says the use of propane creates new risks.

"You have a large volume of an explosive substance that you're transporting and then handling onsite," said Yoxtheimer.

In fact, a recent explosion at a Gasfrac site in Alberta led to a three-week shutdown in operations while the company reviewed its safety procedures.

The company has expanded anyway, fracturing more than 500 wells in 2011. That's a nearly four-fold growth in just two years. And this year the company completed its first wells in Ohio's Utica Shale.

Gasfrac's Kyle Ward says the technology, which was first used in 2008, should also increase production by 20 to 30 percent over the life of a well.

It's too soon to say whether that's true. The company's expansion after just a couple of years is a sign that the technology is attractive to companies. But Nadia Steinzor of the Oil and Gas Accountability Project says regulators should look closely at propane, also known as LPG, fracking, before it spreads.

"Every time there's a new technology that could get more gas out of the ground and get it online, a lot of people get really excited but just because LPG is new and different and doesn't use water, doesn't make it safe," said Steinzor.

Steinzor's group and 14 other environmental organizations sent a letter to the Department of Environmental Conservation in April. They're calling on the DEC to perform a separate environmental review of propane-based fracking before allowing it in New York.

A deal with a landowners' group in the Southern Tier that would have required drillers to use Gasfrac has been put on hold since first being reported in March.