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Is There Really Such A Thing As Green Fracking?

RP Siegel | Tuesday October 23rd, 2012 | 0 Comments

I keep wondering when people are going to get over the idea that we need to choose between the environment and the economy. It’s a false choice, people. We need both to survive. And we need to challenge ourselves to use our knowledge, our skills and our creativity to find a way forward that combines the two.

Let’s take a look at the energy picture. Recent discoveries of plentiful natural gas deposits have positioned gas to be the fuel of choice as “the bridge to tomorrow.” Given that it’s a fossil fuel that emits CO2, unless we can affordably capture the carbon, which no one is even talking about since it’s “relatively clean,” it’s not a viable option for the long term.

But given that we already have the infrastructure in place and it’s far cleaner than any of its conventional alternatives, it would seem to be the way to go for the next decade or so for home heating, power generation, and possibly even transportation fuel. That is, if we can get it out of the ground without killing ourselves in the process.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking does not meet that standard today. When I wrote about this as part of the energy pro and con series, I said, “As far as fracking is concerned, considering that there is already lots of gas available right now, there is no reason (other than greed) to be in a hurry to develop shale gas. Instead, we should take whatever time is necessary to develop a safer, more responsible way to access that gas, while investing heavily in more sustainable sources that will ultimately obviate the need for it.”

Well, it seems that the folks in the industry been listening to me after all (and here I was thinking I was wasting my time).

A number of recent developments by each of the top three natural gas producers show that they have indeed been working to develop cleaner safer methods of extracting the gas from beneath the earth.

First, Halliburton, the largest natural gas producer in the world, has announced several developments, including:

  • Clean Stim, a mixture of “food safe” additives designed to suppress the growth of bacteria that would otherwise form a sludge and impede the flow of gas and oil. (Sounds like preservatives to me.)
  • CleanWave water treatment system, which uses electrostatic separation techniques to purify the flowback water enabling it to be reused.

Number two, Chesapeake Energy, claims to be developing a “100% green,” fracking fluid. “It’s not quite there yet,” said Jody C. Jones, head of environmental and regulatory affairs. “The main concern with testing something like this is you just spent $4 to $6 million to drill a well and taking an untested frack system and shooting it down a well could ruin a reservoir and you’d be throwing away all that money.” It doesn’t sound like the confidence in this approach is where it needs to be yet.

Baker Hughes, the number three producer, is now offering a fluid called “VaporFrac” that replaces almost all of the water used in fracking with nitrogen-based foam.

Another approach that caught my eye some time back is the use of propane gel, developed by GASFRAC of Calgary. In this approach, which is also known as LPG fracking, the hydrocarbon gel is used instead of water to blast through the layers of rock. The beauty of it is that once it reaches a certain depth and pressure, the gel boils off into propane gas which is simply mixed in and collected with the natural gas being extracted from the well.

There is no water to run off or bring up contaminants such as arsenic or radioactive particles and the risk of leaching into the water table seems very low. The process, which has already been used in over 1300 wells in the U.S. and Canada, is currently being reviewed by the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation, under the state’s Environmental Quality Review Act, and may need a separate Environmental Impact Statement before being approved in the state.

Finally, Solazyme, a California company we wrote about previously as the maker of algae-based aviation fuel, has announced the development of a biodegradable fracking additive.

It’s not clear yet whether any of these approaches will ultimately prove to completely devoid of environmental risk, though they are likely to be an improvement over the process currently being used. And there is always the question of cost. But the main point is to show that we need to challenge ourselves to meet a higher standard if we want a better quality of life for ourselves and for future generations.

[Image Credit: billb1961 :Flickr Creative Commons]

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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