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The Quiet Frack, and Other Technology to Reduce Public Impact

New technologies are reducing costs and raising recoveries, but as pressure pumper Liberty Oilfield Services demonstrated Tuesday in Denver, innovation has not only improved equipment, but it's helping to assuage relationships with nearby communities.

The oilfield services company earlier this month unveiled Quiet Fleet, a sound reduction technology incorporated directly into its fracturing (fracking) equipment, which reduces noise levels by an estimated factor of 3 versus a conventional fleet. The marvelous muffler drew applause at the Colorado Oil & Gas Association's 28th Annual Rocky Mountain Energy Summit, where attendees were all ears to hear about ideas that may reshape their world.

Liberty CEO Chris Wright shared a panel with Baker Hughes Inc.'s Hans-Christian Freitag, vice president of integrated technology, and GE Oil & Gas' Phil Mason, president of pressure control. Anadarko Petroleum Corp.'s Lloyd Stutz, who directs the global engineering technology group, moderated the session.

"We have to keep thinking the unthinkable," Freitag said of oilfield technologies. "We may fail tomorrow, and the day after have a solution..."

Privately held Liberty deployed Quiet Fleet into the Denver-Julesburg (DJ) Basin of Colorado and in the first 10 days of operation, completed 210 fracture stages, Wright said.

"Ever since we began fracturing operations in Colorado three years ago, we have focused on innovation that addresses the three biggest impacts on local communities: noise, dust, and truck traffic," he said.  "We are making big progress on all three. The Quiet Fleet is the culmination of two years of Liberty engineering effort."

In Liberty's demonstration video presented to the industry audience, the sound difference in the proppant operations was reduced sharply. The equipment was shown without the equipment and then with the muffler. The pressure pumping equipment was fracturing an estimated 80 bbl of oil a minute near a Colorado neighborhood. It appeared to make no more noise than a well tuned vehicle driving down a street.

"This is an industry driven by innovation and risk takers," Wright said. "We are extracting oil and gas in the DJ Basin now that has average time to drill a well down to four days. Wow."

Innovation became "more urgent" when prices collapsed in 2014 and definitely was not taken off the table, despite smaller budgets. Since the downturn, Liberty's average costs have fallen by 30%, while estimated ultimate recoveries at its Bakken Shale exploration company, Liberty Resources, have risen by 20-30%. As important to Liberty is being a good neighbor, said Wright, a Colorado native.

Reducing Noise, Dust, Trucks

"Noise, dust and truck traffic are more sensitive in Colorado because most development is in or near communities," he said. Since Liberty began fracking in the DJ three years ago, it has worked to containerize sand, among other things, to remove the "noisiest piece of equipment from fracking. It almost completely gets rid of dust from frack sand, ends the line of trucks waiting on the side of the road. And it's also making it much quieter...

"Wash, rinse repeat," he said of innovating. "That's the path to get excited about."

Freitag, who began working at Baker Hughes in 2002, said the "price crisis" has made it "mandatory to take a step back to see what we are doing and do it differently...We have a social responsibility, a license to operate. The oil industry doesn't live in an isolated bubble. We are part of the world," making it imperative to employ the best technology and continuously innovate.

"From that point of view, it's the industry's time to experiment, try new things," Freitag said. "It can be as simple as reducing noise, emissions, frack water treatments...There are loads of opportunities for the next generation to make the industry more efficient and effective.

"What the public doesn't see is that energy is as important as it is," he said. "It brings with it a choice," whether it's wind, solar or fossil fuels. "Nothing is for free. You have to put everything together to have the right mix."

The best solutions most often are "elegant" and "clever," Freitag said. "Sometimes it is so simple." For instance, one of Baker Hughes' "clever" solutions was to develop a fracking chemistry solution that begins activating when it is hit by water. It also is analyzing new technology to "steer" wells, which enable them to be drilled 10,000 feet deep within a zone that's no wider than six feet.

Self-Steering Drilling

"To keep that well in that zone today requires human interaction," Freitag said. "Why not have it be autonomous, able to steer and navigate?" A steering system could regulate the mud flow and rate of pressure.

"These are clever solutions...for the drilling process. Where Google has the self-driving car, our industry has a lot of runway still to explore."

At GE Oil & Gas, the workforce is driven by a need to "eliminate and defer discretionary spending," Mason said. The energy business unit's three core themes are to standardize technology, offer digital solutions and collaboration -- part of its aim to transform the future of oil and gas.

Integrity Monitoring System

For example, an asset integrity management system predicts when an asset is going to fail, alerting when inspections are needed and inspecting equipment without taking them out of service.

Collaborating with partners also allows GE Oil & Gas to "focus on how to spend on things that make the biggest difference in the immediate future," Mason said. Improving artificial lift systems are on the drawing board, with one system designed to make electrical submersible pumps, or ESPs, up to 94% more efficient.

"The process is important in getting to the answer," Mason said.

Innovations still are needed, and a better industry-wide solution has to be found to reduce seismic activity from disposal wells, according to Wright.

"In seismic activity, we haven't done a very good job...The Earth is a solid, but it's moving, and when things move, they create faults. And when the fault slips, it's an earthquake." Most fracks never trigger seismic events of more than 2 magnitude, but injection wells are not fracks -- they are done over a long time and they are continuous, which makes them more prone to seismic events, Wright said.

Lessening Seismic Impact

In Oklahoma, the spate in quake activity in the last couple of years has been linked to wastewater injection wells (see Shale DailyJuly 14). The produced water is flowing into the Arbuckle formation, Wright explained. "It's right on top of basement rock, and there are big faults. The fluid is leaking in and raising pressure, causing them to slip.

"The good news is, it's very, very solvable. The vast majority of injection water is not going to induce earthquakes. But we need to be eyes open about it, and measure where we're doing it. Do simple seismic monitoring. It's very solvable, but we've been slow on the uptake."

Managing "human knowledge" is key in solving oil and gas issues, Freitag told the audience. Like his panel peers, he also is concerned about the brain drain as older experts retire and young people flee the industry, even though it offers challenges unlike any other.

"We have a lot of knowledge, but how do we make it accessible for future generations?" Freitag asked. "We have to rethink, and find some sort of clever GPS [global positioning system] for knowledge in the oilfield...We can create our own materials; we use nanotechnology to make new chemicals. We work at pressure and temperatures in hostile environments that are second to none on this planet. What we have going against us is a lack of publicity..."

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