Waterless fracking ?

A rapidly growing Alberta firm has cornered the market for waterless fracking just as environmental issues begin to dominate the discussion of fracturing deep rock to free vast supplies of natural gas and oil.

Using propane instead of water, GasFrac Energy Services is able to inject a jelled-propane mixture under pressure that contains sand and chemicals into deep vertical and horizontal wells to open up cracks in a formation.

When the pressure is off and the flow reversed, the propane changes to a vapour and moves to the surface with the reservoir’s natural gas or oil. At a separation facility, the propane can be removed and reused.

Originally designed to improve the performance of low-pressure wells, the waterless process has become a winner in the environmental area.

“That has been the real surprise for us, an extra advantage,” said Doug McMillan, vice-president of GasFrac, which was one of several energy firms participating in NAIT’s Industry Day for its petroleum engineering technology students on Thursday.

“In areas of drought-stricken Texas, water is impounded and sold for traditional fracking,” said McMillan. “And in the eastern U.S., there are concerns about water disposal and population density, but we can work there and are even going to be in New York (which does not allow traditional fracking).”

GasFrac first used its patented process in a commercial setting in 2008. Since then the firm has fracked more than 1,300 wells in Canada and the U.S., and is currently adding four units to its fleet of six mobile units, which include liquid natural gas tankers, pressure pumpers, units to add sand and chemicals, as well as extensive monitoring equipment — including 20 sensors and thermal cameras on a site.

After an accident last year with an ignition flash, GasFrac now employs a seclusion zone where no one is allowed once an operation starts.

Traditional fracking firms use millions of litres of water under pressure to push the tiny sand particles into the fractures opened by pressure, and prop them open when the pressure is reduced. Half of the water is typically never recovered, and can even damage the future potential for production in the reservoir.

While GasFrac charges at least 50 per cent more for each frack job compared to traditional fracking, there can be big savings in water use, less truck traffic and easier site cleanup.

And the jump in well production can be spectacular.

Reports from the Cardium formation west of Edmonton are showing propane fracking is two to three times better at increasing the flow of oil and gas when compared with traditional water.

“This is not a silver bullet. This technology is not for every formation,” said Trevor Hayes, a GasFrac account executive who presented at NAIT.

“We have limitations, such as the amount of sand we can add. So that is something we are working on.”

While energy customers such as Husky Energy have already signed long-term deals with GasFrac based on the evidence of greatly enhanced production, McMillan said his most recent call was from Germany.

“They wanted us to come and frack a well. They said they couldn’t do it there because of the water or environmental restrictions. Of course we can’t just go to Europe now, but perhaps in the future. This has global potential.”

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