Analysis: Research Group Defines 'Best' Fracking Practices to Ease Concerns
A research group has issued a non-commercial white paper that outlines the most serious environmental concerns associated with hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") in oil and natural gas shale operations – and identifies emerging practices that could substantially ease these concerns, if they were put into wider use.
The just-released paper was prepared under the umbrella of the Houston Advanced Research Corp., (HARC,) which operates the Environmentally Friendly Drilling Program (known as EFD Systems.) EFD Systems, in turn, is a cooperative effort funded by industry interests, universities, environmental groups and government entities that pro-actively studies drilling technologies and practices of all kinds which leave the least footprint on the environment.
A summer-long project by HARC interns and Texas A&M engineering undergraduates, senior John Michael Fernandez and junior Matthew Gunter, the white paper reviews a number of technical papers and finds that five "good management practices available . . . [that] make hydraulic fracturing more environmentally friendly, while also being economical and efficient in time. These practices include replacing harmful chemicals, refracturing wells, closed loop drilling and fracturing, pad drilling, and centralized remote fracturing." In some instances, best practices identified by the students resulted in major air quality, water savings, safety and even cost improvements.
Being a new technology, fracking is essentially fraught with environmental worries that are entirely valid, the students insisted.
The unusually objective, non-polarized approach taken by the students potentially could serve as an important wedge in de-sensitizing the current battle over fracturing. In a nutshell, the young students agreed with both sides of the debate: That the energy is critical in both this high-demand era, and environmentally, to alleviate use of much dirtier-burning coal in electric utilities, but that fracturing critics among environmental groups also have many good points. Being a new technology, fracking is essentially fraught with environmental worries that are entirely valid, the students insisted.
With the refreshing zest of youth, they "simply" picked the best technical papers in what must have been a daunting mass of equation-filled pages, conducted site visits and, rather incredibly, worded their findings succinctly in about 12 pages (not counting references) and in very, very clear plain English that the family dog or cat could almost comprehend.
The paper's primary findings are condensed below and in the upcoming installment of this article.
Replacing Harmful Chemicals: Although replacing "harmful chemicals" used in fracking may sound like a tall order for the industry, the paper's authors point out that efforts are underway to inform the public better – as well as to reduce or eliminate the toxicity of chemicals used in fracturing operations. The authors recommend continued incremental steps in this direction.
While "the industry makes clear that these chemicals are found in household items, the general public does not know much about the chemicals or how hazardous they can be. . . . Some of this has been helped by a website, www.FracFocus.org… which has reported chemicals and their amounts used in each well reported to the website. This is a step in disclosure, but does not change how harmful the chemicals actually are.
"These steps taken by Chesapeake are leading the industry, eliminating 25 percent of the additives used in normal fracturing processes with less harmful additives. They have also replaced many more with more environmentally friendly alternatives,"
"Currently, 75 percent or more of well site materials have proven to not be harmful to the environment . … One of the ways this was achieved was by progressive steps towards creating new chemicals that have the desired properties without being as harmful. It is very important that, even if the solution is not perfect, incremental steps … [be] taken towards being more environmentally friendly. Every step in the right direction makes a difference in the end. Although this can be a long, expensive process to get to environmentally friendly chemicals and materials, it is important to do because in the long run, every step counts."
The authors outlined a proactive, model policy by Chesapeake Energy Corp. that identifies any unnecessary additives and eliminates them. "Their goal is to replace as many harmful additives as possible with environmentally friendly additives that serve the same purpose. These steps taken by Chesapeake are leading the industry, eliminating 25 percent of the additives used in normal fracturing processes with less harmful additives. They have also replaced many more with more environmentally friendly alternatives," the paper said.
Refracturing: The authors noted that one of the problems faced in production in many wells, especially older wells, is that production generally decreases with time, making each day less economical to produce that well. "Although drilling another well in a similar location is an option, a good management practice that can be used is refracturing the well. Refracturing can take different forms, such as enhancing the original fracture or creating new fractures.
"In the Greater Green River Basin," the authors noted, "…[G]reat success was found using refracturing." A 2006 study, which covers four different refracturing treatments, found that all of the wells significantly increased not only the initial production, but also the long term production, the white paper said.
"Wells that should not be looked at for refracturing are wells with questionable mechanical integrity, wells with low or inadequate reservoir quality, wells that are not productive after an already successful fracture treatment, or wells with thorough depletion in all its layers prior to the re-stimulation. However, there are qualities that signify that a well should be considered for refracturing, such as an inadequate initial fracture design or execution, better technology, better understanding of the reservoir, increase of oil and gas prices, which justifies the extra exploitation, and changes in reservoir stress that could potentially provide new production opportunities...
"Refracturing is considered a good management practice because it not only increases production tremendously when successful, but because it is more environmentally friendly than the alternative solution for getting the oil and gas: drilling a new well. This saves surface area, truck traffic, and time the rig is running from not having to drill a new pad for a new well. Economically, it is a … [best management practice because it] "significantly increased production. Time is also saved in this instance, because there is no wait on having to drill, frac, complete, and then produce the well."
A "Home Run Hit?": Closed-Loop Drilling and Fracturing
The authors noted that proposed legislation in the Marcellus shale region could require closed-loop systems to be used in the hydraulic fracturing practice. Notably, the authors found that, used properly, this practice could provide a quadruple-whammy, or in American vernacular, home run hit, in that it could significantly reduce water, air, land-use and even safety issues all at once.
- "Closed-loop drilling and fracturing systems take advantage of new technologies that allow for reuse of the drilling and fracturing fluid throughout the respective processes. This is accomplished by removing the solids from the fluid through mechanical and chemical means as it is pumped back to the surface. Once these solids are removed, the recycled fluid is stored in large, steel tanks until the next hydraulic fracturing job begins.
- "…[T]his approach reduces is chemical contamination of water supplies. In conventional fracture treatments, the waste water is sometimes stored in large, open pits on the surface rather than large steel tanks for long-term storage. If a storm were to come along or if one of the pits started leaking, it could be detrimental to the local surface and groundwater supplies. In closed-loop systems, however, the fluid has to be stored for longer periods of time, so the fluid is stored in large steel tanks. This greatly reduces the chances that harmful chemicals leak into the surface or groundwater after use in fracture treatments …
- "Another benefit is that the use of fresh water is greatly reduced in closed-loop systems because the fracturing fluid is recycled throughout the hydraulic fracturing process. According to EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] case studies in New Mexico, closed-loop systems could result in up to 80% reduction in total water usage. This would be great improvement compared to conventional methods.
- "With smaller volumes of water being used, the truck traffic in and out of the site is reduced. In the New Mexico case study, the EPA found that truck traffic was reduced by up to 75% for a given pad site throughout the entire drilling and fracturing process. This is a significant improvement, not only in traffic congestion, but more importantly in air quality.
"Wells that use closed-loop systems save $10,000 or more on average compared to those using conventional systems. This is due to less mileage on trucks, less water used, less time expended for the job to be completed, and reduced disposal costs. …Closed-loop systems can also make jobs better in areas of safety, data acquisition, and process control."
The authors continued: "Along with all of these environmental benefits, recycling also offers several other benefits. One major benefit is saved time. In the … New Mexico case study, between two similar wells in the same general area, the well that used a closed-loop system reportedly took only two-thirds of the time to complete compared to the well using conventional methods.
As if all this isn't enough, the authors added: "Wells that use closed-loop systems save $10,000 or more on average compared to those using conventional systems. This is due to less mileage on trucks, less water used, less time expended for the job to be completed, and reduced disposal costs. …Closed-loop systems can also make jobs better in areas of safety, data acquisition, and process control."
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