While the unconventional gas industry is working to manage the water it uses in fracking, Gasfrac Energy Services Inc. thinks it has a better solution.
A propane solution.
Gasfrac, based in Calgary and Houston, uses a propane-based gel in its operations, instead of injecting water into the underground cracks that make up a fracking operation.
"We use liquid petroleum gas [LPG], which is largely propane. It's really the solution to two problems," says Jim Hill, Gasfrac's president and chief executive officer in Calgary.
"Propane has low surface tension – water has about 10 times more surface tension than propane. So customers tend to get significantly more production out of our operations," Mr. Hill explains. Liquid with lower surface tension slips more easily into the tinier fissures of a fracking operation, helping to open the cracks more, to get at more gas. Propane also allows more gas to flow out to be collected than water does.
"It means that we're not using water, which is becoming a significant environmental issue, not just in Canada but also in the rest of the world."
In major energy plays across North America, there's increasing competition for water between the energy and agricultural sectors, Mr. Hill points out.
Water use by the unconventional gas sector varies according to each location and operation, but according to the Canadian Society for Unconventional Resources (CSUR), a typical fracking operation might use 20,000 cubic metres of water as its primary fracturing fluid for a relatively small section of a fracking operation.
That's enough water to grow nine acres (3.6 hectares) of corn in a year, or to keep a typical golf course well watered for 28 days, says CSUR, an industry umbrella group. That amounts to millions of litres of water for fracking, given that unconventional gas production reached 15 per cent of worldwide production in 2010, and is expected to rise to 80 per cent by 2040.
It's important to search for alternatives to water for fracking operations, says Adam Goehner, a technical analyst for the Pembina Institute, an environmental watchdog that engages with the energy sector. But it's not easy.
"There are a number of alternatives, and I know that companies are exploring them. Propane is one, but it's not going to be applicable to every single type of [hydraulic] fracture," he says.
The issues surrounding water use in fracking operations are complicated by the complexity of unconventional gas development and cost.
Unlike conventional gas projects, where the resource is drawn from a reservoir relatively easily, unconventional gas must be extracted from crisp, brittle sedimentary shale. Those millions of litres of fluid, usually water, are mixed with chemicals and sand and injected underground, putting pressure into subsurface fractures so the gas can flow toward the surface.
Mr. Hill says Gasfrac has found that its propane solution works more effectively than water because, in addition to having lower surface tension, propane also has lower viscosity and density. It dissolves more easily in the cracks and distributes more all along the fracking lines, leaving less chance for the proppant – the sand and grit that expands the cracks – to get jammed into micro-cracks, so the gas will flow.
"There are lots of new technologies being explored from the perspective of water use and unconventional gas," says Dan Allan, CSUR's executive vice-president.
Water management technologies fall into different, in many ways unrelated, categories.
Some companies, such as Trican Well Service Ltd., have developed fracking fluids that can be classified as non-toxic: While there are still chemicals in the water that need to be recovered after a fracking operation, they are not classified as a threat to water quality, so the used water is easier to treat and restore.
Other companies are experimenting with different alternatives, such as using saline water found in deep aquifers in British Columbia's Horn River Basin. There are a lot of identified saline aquifers in Western Canada, says CSUR's Mr. Allan, and using them would mean it's not necessary to tap into the fresh water also coveted by farmers, cities and towns.
Using saline aquifers has possibilities, says Pembina's Mr. Goehner, but there are still questions that need to be resolved.
For example, what happens after a huge amount of saline water is drawn from deep in the earth, is used to extract gas and then is on the surface? Where should it go?
Another issue is the cost, because saline water has to be prepared for fracking. "It's still much cheaper to use fresh water and add additives than to start with saltwater and re-engineer," Mr. Goehner says. "From a cost perspective water is still the cheapest, so it's hard to move away."
Gasfrac's Mr. Hill is more optimistic about alternatives to water for fracking, especially propane.
"Our company was founded in 2006, we started manufacturing in 2008, demonstrated our proof of concept in 2010 and now we're actually doing work in the field. We're active in a number of reservoirs," Mr. Hill says.
"Since the fourth quarter of 2010 we've moved forward as a full-fledged operating company, with more than 2,000 fracturing treatments, largely in the Canadian sedimentary basin."
Gasfrac is focusing on North America, where approximately 75 per cent of fracking operations take place, but the company is seeing interest from around the world, Mr. Hill adds.
The ability to turn propane into a gel and inject it under high pressure is leading-edge technology that's already proving itself, and it wasn't even available until recently, he notes.
"A number of things have come together and frankly, one of them is computer power. There are calculations you need to make that you couldn't do 15 years ago, and now you can do them on your cellphone."