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Hail Shale
Are You Ready for Greener Fracking?

Greens, rejoice! A new, more environmentally-friendly hydraulic fracturing fluid is on its way. Scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, which the Department of Energy runs, have been working on an alternative to the chemical-laden slurry that’s currently pumped into horizontal wells in order to fracture shale rock and release oil and gas. The new fluid could save water, reduce the hazards entailed by fracking wastewater, and potentially cut costs for drillers. Scientific American reports:

The [new fracking fluid], developed by Carlos Fernandez of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and coworkers, expands by up to 2.5 times its original volume in response to carbon dioxide. It is made from poly(allylamine) and could reduce the volume of water required for fracking, as well as being non-toxic, a biocide, and a corrosion inhibitor, circumventing the addition of extra chemicals.

On stimulation with carbon dioxide, Fernandez’s fluid transitions from an aqueous solution to a hydrogel, exerting pressure and stress in the rock as it swells, which initiates fractures. This reduces the requirement for external pressure, and since the transition is reversible via carbon dioxide depressurisation or addition of acid, the fluid can be removed from the rock and recycled, further limiting its environmental impact.

Critics of fracking have long pointed to wastewater problems as one of the key reasons to ban or severely limit fracking. Addressing that problem could thus pave the way for wider acceptance of the controversial process. The fact that it could also lower costs for producers is just the icing on the cake.

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  • Andrew Allison

    Greens will not rejoice until there’s a total ban on fracking and the combustion of fossil fuel. I hope they wait a very long time.

  • fastrackn1

    Not sure the greens will “rejoice”, but they will have a little less to whine about….

    • JR

      No they will still whine. We will get more Russia/ME financed groups complaining about how awful fracking is. And let’s be honest, all fracking does is postponing the time when we run out of easily recoverable oil/gas. The future of energy is still nuclear/biofuels, although if battery technology improves enough, solar might become a serious player. However, I doubt anyone takes peak oil chicken littles seriously. They have been claiming that we are going to run out of oil in the next 25 years for the past 200 years. And yet, here we are.

      • fastrackn1

        Yep, fracking only postpones the inevitable.
        We do need to get off the burning of dead dinosaurs eventually, and I am sure mankind will come up with something by the time it is necessary. I wouldn’t be surprised if it isn’t something completely different than what we are trying to develop now.

        • Josephbleau

          Yes fracking only postpones the inevitable like the drilling of drake’s well in PA in 1850 only postponed the inevitable. It creates an immense resource the limits of which are undefined.

          • fastrackn1

            The limits are undefined, however, the resource is finite.

  • Dan Greene

    So how come this stuff is being developed by the Department of Energy instead of the drillers themselves? What is the reaction of drilling companies to this news? Wouldn’t it have made sense to capture their reaction? There’s something a bit strange about this story, but then again, there’s something a bit strange and desperate about the fracking obsession here at TAI. Yes, it’s reversed US productions declines–for a few years at least–but the need to spread the Good News about shale every week or two seems more a marker of insecurity than of any sort of authentic optimism that these pieces try so hard to exude.

    • Andrew Allison

      The answer to your first question is that the drillers currently have little incentive to do so, and to the second “how much is it going to cost me”. But I must agree that there’s a bit much fracking (and telecommuting) in the posts.

      • JR

        Oil prices are down to levels that were thought to be inconceivable just a few years ago and everyone seems to agree that a large portion of it is due to increased production in North America. As for how much is too much in the posts, that depends on your perspective of what’s currently important in terms of geopolitics.

        • Andrew Allison

          Your first point is irrelevant to the discussion. As to the second, I thought it was clear that I was expressing a personal opinion.

        • CaliforniaStark

          The energy boom created by fracking has been the major catalyst for economic growth in the United States; not to mention freeing the United States from dependence on foreign oil, and all but breaking the OPEC oil cartel. Below is a quote from a Chamber of Commerce website:

          “How important has the shale energy boom been to jobs and the economy? Very important. Mark Mills of the Manhattan Institute writes in a new report that the oil and natural gas sector has “provided a greater single boost to the U.S. economy than any other sector.” He adds:

          The $300–$400 billion overall annual economic gain from the oil & gas boom has been greater than the average annual GDP growth of $200–$300 billion in recent years—in other words, the economy would have continued in recession if it were not for the unplanned expansion of the oil & gas sector.”

        • Dan Greene

          There is no question that energy is a critical topic and shale is indeed having a geopolitical impact. But fracking takes up a disproportionate part of the coverage of energy issues. The real question is what the effect of the very steep depletion curves in unconventional plays will be. How long is this going to last? Art Berman made this assertion: “Shale is not a revolution–it’s a retirement party. Shale plays were not some great new idea. They became important only as more attractive plays were exhausted.”

          Forbes said rather noncommittally in January: “If gas outputs are still flowing and growing 10 or 20 years from now, the skeptics will have been proven wrong — though if they’re right, we’ll know sooner than might be comfortable for a lot of stakeholders. For now, the lesson may simply be this: Shale gas resources are buried at mind-boggling depths, and in many important ways, even the experts are still very much groping in the dark. ‘

          But here at TAI, you’d never know that there is a real debate about how long tight oil will be viable as a major contributor to US production. Less cheerleading and more analysis would be good. “Don’t bet against American innovation” was inspiring the first 10 times it was used here but that inspiration is now depleting faster than a Bakken tight play.

      • Dan Greene

        Why do they have little incentive, if the article is correct that this new fluid “potentially cuts costs for drillers,” especially given the current low prices and the tight margins? I mean, if the government is going to use taxpayer money to do it for them, then I guess you’re right–they really don’t have much incentive to develop it themselves.

        • Corlyss

          If I had to guess, the current crowd in charge figures that this will give them control over fracking, which they devoutly want like a 5 yr old wants a piece of candy, and then they can kill the entire industry. Remember this crowd wants desperately to destroy fossil fuel industry in this nation. I suspect that before the end of Obama’s reign, EPA will come out with rules that give them control over some interim phase or operation of fracking on private property. It will seem harmless because it is not an outright ban, but it will prove later to be a building block to total control and eventual elimination.

        • Andrew Allison

          It’s not just that the taxpayer is doing it for them, but the “could” and “potentially”. Slurry fracking is a mature technology, the materials are readily available, and the infrastructure to deliver and utilize them is in place. As you point out, margins are tight and drillers have neither the money nor incentive to invest in new technology. If-and-when the new fracking fluid moves from the lab to large-scale production and proves cost-effective, drillers will no doubt use it. That’s not going to happen be any time soon.

    • Corlyss

      “So how come this stuff is being developed by the Department of Energy instead of the drillers themselves?”
      I’ve heard of at least one being developed by private industry on Jim Cramer’s show. They were on the verge of announcing it when the co. CEO appeared on Cramer. I was going to invest in the co. but I forgot the name.

  • CaliforniaStark

    There already are other methods being used to frack without water; utilizing such substances as propane gel, CO2 and nitrogen. It is good an additional option has been developed, but time will be tell which method of waterless fracking works best.

  • maulerman

    Speaking as a producer, lower costs for producers isn’t the icing, it is the actual cake. In many of the tight oil plays water is cheap and available on location. The costs of transporting the volume of liquid needed to a remote location is a major consideration in whether it is a “better” option. Further, in many plays, water is treated on location and then reused for the next well further lowering the costs.

    As the Saudi’s are busy teaching the world, the economics of getting the oil out of the ground are the most important factor in determining whether they are actually produced. While environmental concerns regarding water use are important and any waste should be minimized, the economics of the new fluids versus fresh water are probably why the government was supporting this initiative as opposed to industry.

    As to the “new” fluids, remember, hydraulic fracturing has been around for decades. Gels and other fluids have been used for at least twenty years but have always been more expensive than fresh water. Producers would weigh and balance whether the increased costs of a more efficient fluid would result in greater production. In fact, one of the game changers for industry for tight gas and tight oil was recognizing the cost effectiveness of going back to “simple” water fracks and then combining that with horizontal drilling.

    We will continue to see technological answers that address environmental concerns, but at the end of the day, if the technology cannot make economic sense without government support, it will not replace the existing methods. Unless of course the government steps in and mandates the use of the new technology.

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