Much (but certainly not all) of the controversy that swirls around hydraulic fracturing centers on water – how much water the process uses, treatment and disposal of toxic, salty, and mildly radioactive wastewater, and more centrally, the serious threats to drinking water posed by fracking chemicals from surface spills and shoddy well construction, and maybe even from the fracking process itself.
The gas industry has belatedly moved toward disclosure of chemicals, and some gas industry service companies are developing what they claim are more benign fracking chemical cocktails.
But what if the use of water and toxic chemicals for fracking was eliminated?
A New York State property owners group that controls 135,000 acres of land has signed an agreement to allow drilling for shale gas by using a waterless alternative to hydraulic fracturing.
The process, developed by Calgary-based energy company GasFrac, injects gelled liquid petroleum gas (LPG), with three additives, into the shale instead of chemical-and-sand-laced water to release trapped natural gas. During the fracking operation, the gelled LPG liquefies, evaoprates, and returns to the surface as propane gas. The propane is recovered, chilled back into a gel and reused.
The technique has been successfully used about a thousand times, mostly in the Canadian provinces of Alberta, British Columbia and New Brunswick. GasFrac claims that its process increases performance of the wells, offsetting the higher costs of buying, safely handling the propane (it’s explosive), and controlling the process. That's disputed by some industry folks I’ve talked to, and there may be other limitations compared to hydraulic fracturing. Still, gas fracking reduces costs of handling and disposing of wastewater, and it could be more efficient, because the propane method uses only about one quarter of the number of truck trips that water-based fracking employs. That would also reduce the impact on local roads.
The process is in its infancy, and so far, the gas fracking has been a tough sell.
Will gas fracking catch on? Stay tuned.
April 12 UPDATE: No so fast. NRDC says that propane fracking in NY can't go forward without a new environmental review.