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New Process Uses No Water to Frack Gas Wells

A new process is designed not to use any surface water at all to frack gas wells. Photo courtesy of the Sierra Club.
A new process is designed not to use any surface water at all to frack gas wells. Photo courtesy of the Sierra Club.
August 17, 2015

HARRISBURG, Pa. – A new process that could be suitable for some Pennsylvania gas wells uses no water for hydraulic fracturing.

One big criticism of fracking is that drillers typically inject millions of gallons of surface water into each well.

Doug McMillan, senior vice president of operations for GASFRAC, Inc. based in Calgary, says the new process uses liquid butane or propane instead.

He points out those are hydrocarbons that occur naturally with the gas anyway – and his company uses a closed system designed not to let those products leak.

"When we go out to treat a well, it's 100 percent, could be a distillate or it's a hydrocarbon from that formation,” he says. “So no water at all."

McMillan stresses that his company’s process doesn't work well with every kind of natural gas shale. He says it's not really suited to the Marcellus, but works better with Utica shale. It's now in use at a few wells in Ohio.

McMillan says it is more difficult and expensive to make a fully sealed, closed loop system. And he says butane is a lot more expensive than surface water. But he says it's cheaper in the long run because there is no waste.

McMillan says any of the butane or propane that comes back with the gas isn't wasted.

"Well, that fluid we bring back is not disposal fluid,” he states. “That's actually hydrocarbon that actually goes to market, or it can go back into the system and you can repeat it."

Observers point out that eliminating the use of surface water would not make fracking pollution free. They stress that some of the worst pollutants are in the naturally occurring brine that comes up with the gas.

McMillan says the kinds of rock formations where GASFRAC’s process works don't produce much brine. Plus he says his company only uses a few, very safe additives – materials that could be found at a pharmacy.

"Pretty standard stuff, like we use a magnesium oxide, just standard mineral oil that you'd find in a face cream, and we combine that with the butane," he explains.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - PA