Flotek Industries has a solution to the debate that surrounds hydraulic fracturing: turn the oil fields into orange groves. Or, at least, make them smell like citrus orchards. The Houston oil field supplier says it has patented a hydraulic fracturing fluid that replaces traditional chemicals with extract from orange peels, turning the conventional mixture of water and toxins into a sweet-smelling blend. Hydraulic fracturing, a process for freeing oil and natural gas from dense underground rock that is fueling a boom in natural gas production, has drawn criticism for injecting potentially hazardous substances into the earth. The process typically flushes massive amounts of water mixed with sand and chemicals into wells under extreme pressure to break open the rock. Flotek and other companies are jumping into the ring with solutions that seek to quell the feud between environmentalists, who say hydraulic fracturing threatens the ground water supply, and oil field operators, who say those fears are unfounded.
Their products intervene at various stages of the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, process to reduce the potential for environmental harm by cutting back on chemicals or water usage, they say. They are growing in popularity and have prompted cautious optimism among some environmentalists.“In general, they sound like a step in the right direction,” said Amy Mall, senior policy analyst for the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council. “We need scientific research to better understand their impacts.”Higher costs for some of the substitute fracturing fluids have limited the industry’s widespread adoption of them.
And some industry insiders, who say the flap over fracturing is overblown, contend that methods employing chemicals with smaller warning labels are little more than public relations ploys.“People have a strong interest in them, especially when the operators are having to report what they put in the well,” said Michael Conway, president of Stim-Lab, a research and consulting company for the industry. But, he added, “In most cases, the changes are relatively minor.” A new Texas law will require well operators to report publicly what chemicals are used in their fracturing fluids starting as soon as next year.
Oil field services company Halliburton names on its website some ingredients for its version of environmentally conscious fracturing fluid, called CleanStim. The company notes that all of the ingredients are federally approved for use in food production — including maltodextrin, a sweetener, and partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, which prolongs foods’ shelf lives. The product reduces the use of some of the most disputed fluid components, including biocides that kill corrosive bacteria in wells and guar gum that thickens the fluid. “It addresses those issues, a perceived concern with the chemicals that are used in hydraulic fracturing,” said Matt Oehler, Halliburton’s manager of global business development and marketing. “Whether the perception is real or not, to remove some of that chemistry is good.”
Flotek developed its citrus-based fluid seven years ago, President John Chisholm said, before the crescendo of public concern about hydraulic fracturing. “We looked at it for its technical benefits,” Chisholm said, noting that the citrus rind extract, called d-limonene, eases the flow of the well products to the surface.“ At the time, we didn’t realize the impact of it being biodegradable,” he said. Although the company also sells conventional products, Chisholm said, the citrus fluid draws higher demand. Still, he says, the price for a product that has to be squeezed from oranges impedes its broader acceptance by oil field operators.
The same is true for Canadian company GasFrac Energy Services, which uses propane instead of water to complete fracturing jobs. The method mitigates concern about the large amounts of water typically used.The volume of water in a single job can vary widely, but often ranges from 2 million to 6 million gallons, and most of the fluid and its contents remains trapped in the earth. The fluid that does return to the surface has to be disposed of as waste- water.
Propane doesn’t leave behind the contaminants and sludge that water-based fracturing does, said Robert Lestz, chief technology officer for GasFrac.“When we are using a fluid that costs $2 per gallon, versus water, at the front end it is more expensive,” Lestz said. But the liquid propane gas “can be recaptured, resold and offset that cost.”Of course, using a flammable material comes with its own safety concerns.Bosque Systems, a water management company, takes a different approach to reducing the amount of water used in fracturing – recycling it.
One barrel 100 times
Three years ago, the company started cleaning the fracturing water that returned to the surface so it can be pumped back into the well, President Clane LaCrosse said. “Instead of using 100 barrels, you are using one barrel 100 times,” LaCrosse said. “There is a sincere desire to make these processes as stable and environmentally friendly as possible.”