LPG Gel: A Greener Way to Frack?

A GasFrac site (left) and a glimpse of the company's propane gel. (images: GasFrac Energy Services)

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We’ve got to make sure that we’re extracting natural gas safely, without polluting our water supply. That’s why I’ve asked Secretary [Steven] Chu, my energy secretary, to work with other agencies, the natural gas industry, states, and environmental experts to improve the safety of this process.

— Pres. Barack Obama, 30 March 2011

Among the priorities the president outlined in his address on energy security at the end of March, he stressed the need to use “recent innovations” to tap into the country’s natural gas reserves — and with the same breath said it should be done without harming the earth. It was a thinly veiled reference to hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a controversial extraction method that involves shooting a cocktail of water and chemicals into the earth to crack underground rock formations and release the gas. Environmentalists are fretting the practice will poison groundwater, and according to a New York Times story today, or that it will contribute more planet-warming methane to the atmosphere. So it was a politic move for Obama to add that his top energy adviser, Chu, would oversee the task.

But how to pull off a greener frack? One consideration: Using a propane gel instead of conventional fracking fluids.

A Canadian firm named GasFrac Energy Services has developed a fracking technique that centers on its own formula of gelled LPG, a thing that resembles vanilla pudding. The method has already been used successfully on the Canadian gas fields, according to the company. And advocates say the gel offers the winning combo of being more environmentally friendly than the standard fracking formula and more profitable in the long run.

The gel is close to 100-percent recoverable from a gas well (and potentially reusable), compared to as little as 50-percent for the usual water-sand-chemical cocktail, GasFrac says. In turn, that means a lighter footprint at drilling sites — fewer trucks and no wastewater issues.

“Here’s a technology that gets away from chemicals and the use of water,” the head of a landowners group in Tioga County, N.Y., told the local Owego Pennysaver yesterday. The group has plans to meet with GasFrac this week to discuss the drilling technique along the Marcellus shale. The company, which is currently tapping gas in Canada and Texas, has plans to expand into New York, according to the Pennysaver.

Meanwhile, the GasFrac gel is more expensive, but offers long-term savings, according to one investor. The technology is more efficient at several steps than a conventional fracking slurry (for a technical breakdown, plus an interesting visual on the process, check the GasFrac page here) and promises much easier clean-up. The technology may still pose some unique challenges (in January, a fire sparked by a propane leak occurred at a GasFrac site in Alberta), but market players have been warmly appraising the potential.

So a memo to Secretary Chu: Could LPG gel play a part in eco-friendly fracking?

Ps. For further reading, a Canadian trade publication has a really solid write-up on GasFrac here.

Pps. They call it “fraccing,” not fracking — is that a Canada thing?