No water for fracking? No problem

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One of the latest — and sillier — local whines against fracking is that it is a profligate consumer of water that takes 33,000 acre feet of the stuff permanently out of the state’s hydraulic cycle.

The 33,000 acre feet of water that is supposedly lost forever (actually a substantial percentage of it is being recycled) represents less than 1 percent of the state’s annual water supply.

That seems a small enough price to pay for 1) the multi-billion dollar economic return that comes from the revival of the oil and gas industry in Colorado, 2) the plunge in natural gas prices that fracking has caused, which will benefit virtually every home and business in the state, 3) the reduction in U.S. oil imports (and dollar exports) that fracking contributes to, and 4) the reduction in U.S. CO2 emissions from electric utilities being able to burn more natural gas and less coal that fracking has made possible.

The state’s hydraulic cycle is an open cycle — each year millions of acre feet of water enters it from the Pacific and Arctic Oceans and the Gulf of Mexico via snow and rain, and leaves it via rivers and evaporation. True, the water that remains in fracked wells may be lost to the global hydraulic cycle (never mind the state cycle), but it is routinely replaced by — wait for it — mother nature. And the Pacific Ocean isn’t going to run out of water anytime soon.

However, the oil industry is increasingly turning to a technology that makes the water availability argument moot — waterless fracking.

The process, which was developed by a Canadian company named GasFrac Services, uses propane instead of water as the working fluid in fracking. The company developed a jelled mix of propane and chemicals that it substitutes for water in its frack jobs.

This has several advantages that go beyond saving water. After a well has been fractured and the pressure is released, the propane turns to vapor and flows to the surface with the oil and/or gas that has been freed. Almost all of it returns to the surface and can be easily recovered and reused. In conventional, water-based fracking, as much as half the water may remain in the well, where it can cut hydrocarbon production.

And since propane-based frack fluid returns as a vapor, the fracking chemicals, which don’t vaporize, are left in the well. Unlike recovered frack water, the propane doesn’t have to be cleaned up before reuse.

And then there is the matter of increased production. In some formations, like the Cardium shale formation west of Edmonton, production from propane-fracked wells is two to three times better than production from water-fracked wells.

GasFrac’s waterless fracking technology is relatively new — it was developed in 2008 — but not untested. The company has successfully fracked more than 1,300 wells in the last four years, and business is booming.

Propane fracking currently costs about 50 percent more than conventional fracking, but that will probably change as other companies get into the business and the technology matures, as has already happened with conventional fracking.

So since waterless fracking looks like a solution to several green objections to fracking, is the environmental community celebrating?

Fat chance.

Faced with the prospect of waterless fracking providing a way for oil companies to get around New York State’s ban on (water-based) hydraulic fracking, the Sierra Club and 14 other environmental groups last spring sent a letter to the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation denouncing propane-based fracking as fraught with “alarming” known and unknown risks. Given the risk of propane explosions, said Sierra Club spokeswoman Deb Nardone, “it is clear that propane fracking just substitutes one set of problems for another set of even more dangerous problems.”

The objection is lame. Explosions and fires are a small but real risk at any oil and gas operation. It’s hard to see how putting propane down a well that is expected to produce, among other things, natural gas (methane), condensate (natural gasoline) and propane, is going to increase the risk by much. In any case, given the degree to which the United States and industrial civilization generally are dependent on oil and natural gas (yeah, even in Boulder), the risk is acceptable.

For the past decade there has been a technology race under way between the oil and gas industry and the alternative energy industry. Alternative energy has made great technological strides during that time and dramatically reduced the cost of its technologies, but the oil and gas industry has made much greater strides.

Green energy has benefitted from generous government subsidies — at least as favorable as those the oil industry gets — and favorable laws (like those requiring that utilities obtain a substantial percentage of their electricity from green sources).

That’s to the good, but the fact remains that without those subsidies, alternative energy can’t compete with oil and gas. The oil and gas companies are winning the technological race — they’re developing and deploying new technology faster than the green energy companies are, and faster than green activists can demonize it.

Wind and solar’s day will eventually come, but only after their entrepreneurs learn to compete the old fashioned way — by offering better products at a lower price — without the benefit of government subsidies and special treatment. If their success hinges on getting rival technologies banned, and with dishonest arguments at that, they will fail.

Respond: This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.