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Waterless Fracking Method Could Sidestep NY Gas Drilling Ban

Amid skepticism from engineers and environmentalists, landowners and drilling company bet on LPG fracking, which uses propane instead of water.

Apr 16, 2012
(Page 2 of 3 )
Map of primary aquifers and Marcellus Shale extent in NY

Gruskin thinks efforts by the Tioga group and other landowners are helping to push the industry towards cleaner fracking methods. "Some of the most ardent environmentalists are landowners," he said. "They're interested in both taking care of their land and water and developing this resource."

'If You Don't Have to Use Water'

The Tioga County project began with Nick Schoonover, who has spent the last three years arguing that gas drilling would not only be a boon to upstate New York's struggling economy, but could also be smartly managed to minimize its environmental impact.

Schoonover formed the landowners group in 2008, after he retired from a career as an electrical engineer at IBM. He thought he'd spend a year helping negotiate a natural gas drilling lease for what was at the time a few dozen families, many of them farmers. But then New York's hydraulic fracturing moratorium took effect and a debate over gas drilling's role in the state's economic and environmental future began. The New Assembly passed the moratoriumin 2010 and then extended it in 2011.

"That's when I was hauled into the abyss," Schoonover said.

Schoonover grew up in Tioga Center, a small town along the Susquehanna River's north branch, and he traces his family roots in the area to 1790. While he thinks hydraulic fracturing is generally safe, he also thinks it comes with real environmental risks, such as the huge amounts of toxic wastewater it produced.

Even in 2008—before wastewater disposal was linked to earthquakes in Ohio and potentially harmful levels of contaminants in Pennsylvania rivers—Schoonover was interested in finding the most "technologically advanced" form of fracking. Better yet, he wanted to find a company that didn't use water. "If you don't have to use water, why would you?" he wondered.

In 2009, Schoonover started talking with GasFrac's chief technology officer, Robert Lestz, who largely invented the modern form of LPG in the early 2000s, when he was a research engineer at the California-based oil and gas giant Chevron.

At that point, GasFrac had been working primarily in western Canada and its technique was considered unproven, especially for use in shale formations. But the technology appealed to Schoonover, because it eliminated the waste water problem and simplified the drilling process. GasFrac also claims that LPG can extract more oil and gas than water.

LPG fracking performs the same function as hydraulic fracturing: using sand or another "proppant" to create and hold open cracks in dense rock formations, it releases oil or gas. Sometimes mixed with butane and other additives, the propane is pressurized to the consistency of a gel, which carries the proppant through pipes into the rock underground. Unlike water, though, LPG naturally mixes with petroleum, so it returns to the surface with the oil or gas being extracted. And since LPG is electrically neutral and lacks much friction, it doesn't dissolve and bring back to the surface the salts, heavy metals or radioactive compounds that water-based fracking extracts from the rock underground.

Amid Skepticism, LPG Grows

The Tioga County deal is a big boost for a young company like GasFrac, but just how effective and profitable LPG will be is still subject to debate.

Among the skeptics is Anthony Ingraffea, a Cornell University engineer who spent 20 years researching fracking mechanics for Schlumberger, one of the largest fracking companies. Ingraffea is a fierce critic of the oil and gas industry and he opposes new drilling in New York. As an engineer, he said he needs to see some hard data about GasFrac’s work before he can assess LPG's performance, and so far it's not available.

"I'll give them credit that geochemically, it's much better to use a hydrocarbon [propane and butane] to stimulate a reservoir," Ingraffea said. "But I'm not sure how well this technique will work in a high volume long lateral shale formation, because they haven't released proprietary data. That's still unknown."

Lestz, GasFrac's chief technology officer, said it is up to the companies he has worked with to release that data, and they may not want to do that because of competitive concerns.

Recent deals, official and rumored, suggest that more oil and gas companies are willing to experiment with LPG.

San Antonio-based BlackBrush recently announced a two-year contract with GasFrac in the oil-rich Eagle Ford Shale in Texas. Phil Mezey, BlackBrush’s co-CEO, said in a news release that using LPG brought "oil production at a sustainable rate weeks earlier than with the standard water frac and we are seeing huge savings on disposal of frac fluids."

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