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Executives Eye Frack Water Alternatives

Oil, natural gas and natural gas liquids (NGL) aren't the only commodities on the minds of producers. These day's they've been thinking about water, too -- a lot actually.

Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) stimulation of shale gas and oil wells has captured the imagination of the environmental community for its perceived contamination threat to drinking water aquifers. "Fracking is in the papers a lot," lamented Marathon Oil's Roger Pinkerton, director of North American onshore exploration. "I've met a lot of people who have heard that word; I haven't met many who know much about it."

Pinkerton was among the speakers at the North American Prospect Expo Business Conference in Houston last week where the record-setting Texas drought has brought another aspect of fracking to the fore: water consumption. In Texas, most water for fracking comes from underground aquifers, and the usage is less than that for agricultural purposes, according to Robert Mace, deputy executive administrator with the Texas Water Board (see Shale Daily, June 15).

Based on research by the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas at Austin, Mace said water usage for fracking in Texas is expected to peak around 2031. At that time it is estimated such use will still only be equivalent to about 20% of the water used for agriculture, Mace said.

Still, Pinkerton and others at the conference said they realize water consumption by the industry is an issue that needs to be addressed.

Pinkerton noted the drought and said, "We're convinced that we can protect freshwater aquifers and that brackish water can be used for fracking and cleaned up." To address water disposal issues, Pinkerton said Marathon recycles as much frack water as it can.

Range Resources Corp.'s Alan Farquharson, vice president of reservoir engineering, said his company has been recycling frack water for at least a year. "We have not seen any detriment to our well performance," he said. In the Marcellus Shale the impetus for Range to recycle water was the difficulty and cost of wastewater disposal. Now that the company has seen that it can work, it has shared the knowledge with other operators, Farquharson said.

Collaboration and cooperation among producers is one way to address the water issue, but Schlumberger's Chris Hopkins, vice president of unconventional resources, emphasized technology as having the ability to provide the ultimate solutions.

"To me, pumping the volume of water and the kind of rates that we pump is probably unsustainable in the future going forward for a variety of reasons, environmental reasons, supply reasons..." he said. "So I think trying to come up with techniques that allow you to get better or the same productivity with less fluid, less horsepower, less energy so to speak, I think is key to future success, not just in the U.S. but internationally."

Hopkins pointed to Schlumberger's HiWAY fracking method as one example of how technology is enabling the industry to do more with less when it comes to drilling and well stimulation (see Shale Daily, Feb. 25).

The ultimate goal is to keep frack fluids in a closed-loop system in which everything is recycled, Hopkins said. "This is a whole area of technology that has just come around in the last three or four years, and this will improve as we go forward," he said.

ConocoPhillips' Glenn Schaaf, vice president of drilling and production, said the industry needs to "frack unconventionally...We need to figure out a better way to do it. The current way is too resource-intensive."

With that in mind, Schaaf looks to the Gulf of Mexico when thinking about wells in the Eagle Ford Shale of South Texas. "We need to develop the technologies to use saltier, more brine-prone waters," he said. "I would go so far as to say the Gulf of Mexico is relatively close to the Eagle Ford. I'm not sure why we can't figure out how to take advantage of that. I think we can. I think that could be one of our early wins.

"I think we need to be thinking about alternative carrier fluids. What could be a better carrier fluid than using fresh water, using water period? Water is a prime resource...We're not major users; keep that in mind. And we as an industry have got to do a better job of telling the public that we're not major users of water in these very active plays. But we still need to do our part to reduce the use."