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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Fracking with Propane Instead of Water

Air Date: Week of
Workers at a Cabot Oil & Gas drilling site in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Matt Richmond)

Hydraulic fracturing uses millions of gallons of water at each well site in order to release oil and gas. A Canadian company has found a method that uses propane instead of water. Gasfrac says the propane technique uses biodegradable chemicals and doesn’t pollute groundwater. But as The Allegheny Front’s Matt Richmond reports, others say propane fracking is risky business.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. About a quarter of the natural gas produced in the US comes from the drilling process know as hydraulic fracturing or fracking. That’s a lot of gas…and it takes a lot of water to extract it from shale formations deep in the ground. A lot of water.

For example: It takes anywhere two to eight million gallons of water to open a single well in the Marcellus Shale in the gas rich Appalachian Basin. That’s where a Canadian company called Gasfrac comes in. It’s developed a fracking technique that eliminates the need for all that water. But as The Allegheny Front’s Matt Richmond reports, the technology is proving to be a hard sell:

This rig first drills deep into the rock and then digs horizontally. (Photo: Matt Richmond)


STARK: We’re at a wellpad in Susquehanna County, this is the Tetic pad.

RICHMOND: That’s Cabot Oil and Gas spokesman George Stark. Behind him, a drilling rig slowly digs down into the rock. Surrounding the rig are trailers for the workers, the diesel generators that run all day all night and stacks and stacks of metal pipes.

STARK: Each casing is lowered down in varying degrees. So you’re first…at the surface, we use what’s called conductor casing.

RICHMOND: The drilling rig will grind down about 9000 feet down into the rock and then about 3500 feet horizontally. During the vertical drilling, cement will be poured around the pipes. This is to prevent the well from leaking.

STARK: Casing and cementing are by far the critical pieces to do up front to ensure that you’re protecting the groundwater up front.

RICHMOND: This rig will be here as many as 20 days for each well. Then the drilling rig is packed up and shipped off and another company comes in to hydraulically fracture the well.

The amount of water used in a hydraulically fractured well is staggering - as much as 8 million gallons for a single well in the Marcellus Shale. The water that comes back out of the well poses other threats. Open storage ponds can leak and improperly treated wastewater can contaminate drinking water supplies.

Now a Canadian company called GasFrac has begun fracturing wells without all that water. It’s using propane. Last year, the company performed more than 500 waterless fractures in North America, almost four times as many as in 2009. GasFrac spokesman Kyle Ward says the company fracked its first well just four years ago and it takes time for companies to switch over to a new technology.

WARD: But if they start seeing the production value and that they can actually make more money, then that’s when their ears perk up and that’s what we’re starting to see.

RICHMOND: According to Ward, using propane instead of water to fracture a well eliminates many of the threats to groundwater. Millions of gallons of flow-back water are eliminated. And propane doesn’t dissolve the salt or naturally occurring radioactive materials that are already in the rock. Ward says only four ingredients besides propane are sent down the well and all of them are organic.

WARD: So what we’re doing basically is once we’re done, there’s nothing in the hole except sand, I mean everything is gone.

RICHMOND: The 100 to 150 thousand gallons of propane used to fracture the well comes back up with the natural gas and can be sold or reused. But the switch to propane is no sure bet. First of all, it’s not clear how effective propane is.

That’s because companies already using the technique keep any increased production a secret for the competitive advantage. Companies will move away from using water if propane is proven to be more profitable. David Yoxtheimer is a hydrogeologist with Penn State’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research. He says the cost of water usage and disposal could propel the switch.

YOXTHEIMER: You know, it ranges from roughly five to ten percent of the cost of a well so that could be anywhere from 200,000 to maybe upwards of maybe even a million dollars in some cases for a bigger well.

A Cabot Oil and Gas drilling rig in Susquehanna County,
Pennsylvania. The rig drills vertically, then horizontally. (Photo: Matt Richmond)

RICHMOND: Yoxtheimer says propane may be more useful in areas with what’s known as ‘wet gas,’ like in Western Pennsylvania, where there’s already more propane in the reservoir. But water is better suited for deeper shales. That’s because it takes high pressure to fracture a well.

With water, it is easier to create the pressure needed to open up the spaces that allow gas to travel out of the rock. Derek Ellsworth, another researcher at Penn State, agrees. He compares opening a fracture to blowing up a balloon, and using propane is like blowing up the balloon with air.

ELLSWORTH: As you pump it into the balloon, certainly the balloon does get larger, but it doesn’t get larger as quickly as if you were filling the balloon with water.

RICHMOND: Ellsworth says propane might not be the best substitute for water. He says other gases, like nitrogen or CO2, would be cheaper and may work just as well. Nitrogen is basically air, not hard to find, and pumping CO2 into the ground is better than releasing it into the atmosphere, says Ellsworth.

ELLSWORTH: Having large amounts of CO2 available that could be utilized in some way with portions of it sequestered in these shale reservoirs by absorption has some attractiveness to it.

RICHMOND: Everybody agrees that more research on propane, or LPG, fracking is needed. Nadia Steinzor of the Oil and Gas Accountability Project says the risks of working with a highly explosive gas, at high pressure should give everyone pause.

STEINZOR: Every time there’s a new technology that could get more gas out of the ground and get it online, it’s…a lot of people get really excited about it. But, just because LPG is new and it’s different and it doesn’t use water, doesn’t make it safe.

George Stark works for Cabot Oil and Gas. The company is drilling a well deep into the rock formations to enable gas extraction. (Photo: Matt Richmond)

RICHMOND: Gasfrac company spokesman Kyle Ward says that, since an explosion last year at a well in Canada, the company shut down operations and increased safety precautions. And they seem to have recovered. They’ve expanded operations into Texas and fracked test wells recently in Ohio’s Utica Shale. And in the end, the company’s growth may be the best way to gauge whether or not its technology works. For Living on Earth, I’m Matt Richmond.

[MUSIC: Andrew Bird “ Desperation Needs” from Break It Yourself (Mom + Pop Music 2012).]

GELLERMAN: Matt Richmond’s story on fracking with propane comes to us by way of of the Pennsylvania public radio program The Allegheny Front.



Find out more about Gasfrac and propane fracking

Oil and Gas Accountability Project

The Allegheny Front – environmental radio for western Pennsylvania


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