Fracking Is: 1) A Process; 2) An Expletive. Choose One
COMMENT: In British Columbia, "fraccing" - whereby fluids are injected into gas-containing substrates, fracturing them, and thereby both increasing and accelerating the release of gas - is on a dramatic rise. And it's something British Columbians need to know more about.
Fracking Is: 1) A Process; 2) An Expletive. Choose OneAndrew Reinbach
June 8, 2009
Cooperstown, New York -- Whether gas drilling creates rivers of gold or industrial waste is a matter of opinion. What it definitely creates is legislation.
Last week, two members of Congress, Diana DeGette (D.-Colo.) and Maurice Hinchey (D.-NY), said they were re-introducing a 2008 bill to rescind features of a Bush/Cheney bill, the Energy Policy Act of 2005, that exempted energy drillers from important features of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. The earlier bill died last year in a Republican-controlled committee, but this year it's expected to be reported out of Rep. Henry Waxman's (D-Ca.) Energy and Commerce Committee.
Another bill, introduced to the New York Assembly on June 5th by 12 Assembly members, will substantially regulate all gas drilling in the state, including the controversial practice of horizontal drilling and shale fracturing, or "fracking", which uses chemicals some critics say could contaminate ground water with carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. The exact contents of fracking liquids is a well-defended industry secret, but among the deadly chemicals known to be used include benzene, toluene, and diesel fuel.
No such laws, or others yet to come, would have appeared without the grassroots activists around the country who pushed an environmental agenda during the Bush/Cheney years. "They're the foot soldiers of the movement," says Amy Mall, senior policy advisor of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "We rely on them."
These activists can be remarkably persistent -- and successful. Here, for instance, at the headwaters of the Susquehanna River, a loose coalition of citizen activists called Sustainable Otsego managed, after a long campaign, to prompt the otherwise politically conservative Board of Supervisors to adopt a resolution that will, among other things, make drillers disclose the contents of fracking liquids, and pay for any damage they cause to the local roads and pristine farmlands.
In fracking, otherwise known as hydro-fracturing, drillers sink several horizontal wells from a single wellhead; then, under pressure, they pump in millions of gallons of water laced with chemicals and sand. The pressure cracks the shale deposits and releases much more gas than would a conventional well. Most of the fluid is then removed from the well lines; but some remains. The rest is either shipped away, or dumped into a lined, open pit to evaporate; the remaining sludge is later trucked to a disposal site.
The ruckus about fracking is about whether the chemicals left underground, or in the sludge ponds, will leach into local aquifers and poison private wells and municipal water supplies.
The former danger is a matter of conjecture; while there are many recent reports of people's health being damaged by suspected exposure to fracking liquids, either directly or in drinking water -- some quite compelling -- no such events have been officially confirmed since fracking was introduced to the United States in 1948. Also, water wells are typically no more than 200 feet deep, while gas is typically found thousands of feet below the surface, in wells drillers insist are well protected from leakage.
But environmentalists point out that the depth of the wells means that left-over fracking liquids would migrate from such depths over long periods -- at least 30 years -- so that any potential contamination wouldn't emerge for years. These groups likewise say that the industry wants to keep the contents of fracking liquids a secret because there would be a direct line of responsibility -- and legal liability -- between fracking and contamination, if any fracking chemical ever did appear in local drinking water.
They also point out that the danger isn't limited to underground water supplies. Last week, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that a leaking pipe at a local Marcellus drilling site sent stored fracking liquid into a small stream that feeds a lake in a popular park; the contamination killed fish and other water critters for three-quarters of a mile downstream. The Post-Gazette reports that Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has taken water samples above and below the leak, and is mulling appropriate action.
But at least the Pennsylvania DEC discovered the spill. In New York, there are reportedly only 18 drilling-related DEC field investigators on staff, while the gas industry already has 13,000 wells in operation, and expects to sink another 15,000 or so once the Marcellus play begins in earnest. The DEC likes to insist that drillers are liable for the damage they cause; but it all depends on that handful of inspectors. And after all, speeding is against the law too, though people have been known to occasionally exceed the speed limit.
The spur to the recent spate of laws is the ongoing development of the Marcellus formation, a rich deposit of gas-bearing shale stretching from the southern border of West Virginia to New York's Route 20, which parallels the Mohawk Valley. The Marcellus deposits are estimated to contain anywhere from 1.9 trillion cubic feet of gas -- according to the U.S. Geological Survey -- to 50 trillion cubic feet, worth some $1 Trillion, according to a study by Professors Terry Englander of Pennsylvania State University, and Gary Lash of the State University of New York at Fredonia.
Numbers like that, combined with the fact that developing our natural gas resources is national strategic policy, mean that anybody who stands in front of that freight train to stop it will wind up a wet spot. Not even the NRDC opposes responsible development of the Marcellus, or similar deposits in Texas, Colorado, Wyoming and elsewhere; the key word being "responsible."
All in all, it seems unlikely that the Bush/Cheney approach to energy policy, openly displayed in the 2005 exemptions for drillers to the Safe Drinking Water Act, will survive much longer; the obvious trend is to regulate, or re-regulate, with an eye towards protecting the environment and, by extension, the health of local citizens.
The premise, of course, is that responsible adults clean up after themselves. Predictably, the energy industry is lumbering on with the usual claims that the oppressive costs of such onerous regulation will stop gas drilling in its tracks. But the all-in cost per well of compliance with these laws is estimated to be about $100,000, which doesn't seem much against the millions of dollars per month thrown off by a successful well. The worst that can be said about those costs is that it would force drillers to concentrate on the most promising wells; looked at this way, these laws are doing drillers a favor.
The other argument, heard in a June 4th hearing of Congress' Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, is more subtle -- that regulating gas drilling should be left to the states. But opponents will doubtless counter with Congress' powers to regulate interstate commerce. Even energy industry lobbyists concede privately that in this game they've got a weak hand, a dwindling pile of chips, and few powerful allies who can step in to save their bacon.
Just a ‘FRAC’ awayPeter McKenzie-Brown
Alberta Oil Magazine
April 01, 2009
New gas mega-wells threaten to strain contractor fleet
If unconventional natural gas is a revolution in the making, so are the services required to make it happen. Industry spending patterns are shifting, with much bigger investments now being poured into operations below the ground.
Traditional ways of doing business are changing. Multiple wells are drilled from single sites, known as “pads,” to tap the new gas target. The old oilfield rhythm of busy winters and quiet summers is also changing as work grows in the warm seasons.
Despite the economic downturn, there is even a hint of a gas counterpart to the former oil sands labor shortage in the air. There is a risk that in the near future Western Canada will find itself short of powerful hydraulic equipment needed to make the networks of underground channels that make unconventional gas deposits flow. This would be a blow to exploration and production companies, but possibly a considerable financial boon to service companies with the right stuff to do the rock fracturing, a field known as “fraccing” in the industry.
The specialty is a well stimulation technique which improves production from geological formations where natural flow is restricted. Hydraulic fracturing pushes a mix of water, sand and some soluble chemicals into well bores at high pressure, both to spread cracks across the formation and hold them open for gas and oil to flow.
Originally a simple operation, fraccing has evolved into a high industrial art that uses multi-stage techniques in horizontal wells, reports Dave Russum, geosciences vice-president for AJM Petroleum Consulting. “Between the heel [start] and the toe [end] of a horizontal well, you isolate an interval close to the toe and frac that region,” Russum says. “Then you move back towards the heel, isolate another interval and do another frac.”
The technique is a powerful production tool. “This breaks up a lot of rock, making a lot more gas available. These new technologies are enabling us to access a whole lot more low-permeability [poorly flowing] rock than you would ever be able to reach with a vertical well,” Russum says.
Analyst Kevin Lo of FirstEnergy Capital Corp. estimates that fraccing just one of EnCana Corp.’s Horn River shale gas wells in northeastern British Columbia requires a crew equipped with more than 30,000 horsepower of compression. In Western Canada, there is perhaps 800,000 horsepower available.
“We do not believe that there will be sufficient capacity to perform all of the jobs necessary” if B.C.’s Horn River and Montney shale gas drilling hot spots grow, Lo says in a research note. He also worries about the heavy lifting required to deliver enough fraccing materials. Fracturing a single horizontal well in the new unconventional gas reservoirs can require up to two thousand tonnes of sand.
Dale Dusterhoft, a senior vice-president at Trican Well Service Ltd. describes FirstEnergy’s estimates of requirements for the new gas production as conservative. “Some of the Horn River wells require up to 45,000 horsepower of compression,” Dusterhoft reports. “With 10 holes per pad, you may have 40,000 horsepower tied up for 10 weeks.”
The Trican executive predicts, “There will be shortages of equipment when we get up to full development of the shales.” If it happens, the squeeze will be a plus for service companies like his, which will then charge premium day rates, but a worry for the gas producers in the region.
Environmentalists have voiced concern that fraccing chemicals may contaminate groundwater. But Dusterhoft says that, before wells are fracced, the formations are securely sealed away from potential fresh-water reservoirs.
Use of chemicals is also limited in the unconventional wells in northeastern B.C. “We only use a polymer as a friction reducer, and maybe something to stabilize the clays. Mostly we just run water and sand,” Dusterhoft says.
Fraccing’s goal is to create a web of flow channels. When the technique is completely successful, he says, all of the fractures connect with each other to provide maximum production, he says. “We like to say we can ‘farm’ the reservoir.”
Huge fraccing jobs in northeastern B.C. require vast logistical support. Each well can require 2,000 to 3,000 tonnes of fine-grained sand. Parades of trucks deliver vast harvests of ancient sand mined from fossil beaches, often from quarries in Saskatchewan. Such a project may require a 40-member crew, operating 20 or more hydraulic compression systems mounted on large fraccing trucks.
High volumes of water are also used. A typical job requires a large water storage pit in addition to a string of high-volume steel tanks. The amount of water being used in these jobs has contributed to the developing seasonal shift in the fraccing business. “Now the industry is drilling during winter freeze-up, as we always have, but fraccing in the summer. All the bigger operators are trending in that direction,” Dusterhoft reports.
Water is easier to handle in warmer weather. In the longer term, the changing work pattern will require upgrading to all-weather roads to Horn River and Montney. Until those improvements are completed, service companies have to leave equipment in the area during freeze-up.
The shift to unconventional gas occurred much more quickly than anyone expected, Dusterhoft says. Among numerous implications of the switch, an old barometer of industry health –the sheer number of wells drilled – is becoming obsolete.
The production change, while increasing oilfield work, is contributing to a reduction in the total number of Canadian wells being drilled. In 2008, nearly 40 per cent of the wells involved horizontal or directional drilling – twice the level of 10 years ago. For the first time, FirstEnergy Capital said in a recent research note, the number of horizontal wells across reservoirs will soon match the number directionally drilled at angles. Greater proportions of industry spending on wells are going into completion services like fraccing.
Unconventional gas operations are not cheap. Drilling costs are in the range of $5 million to $7 million per well at Horn River, and $4 million to $5 million at Montney. Fraccing costs are estimated to be $2 million to $3 million per well.
But the production profiles for these wells make them worth their costs. Each may produce 7.5 million cubic feet of gas per day in their first year. Production declines rapidly but typically levels off at around two million cubic feet per day then stays steady for years. When gas prices improve, the new wells will be cash registers.