The first hydraulic fracture experiment was waterless. A gasoline gel was injected into the Hugoton field in 1947. What was once an emerging technology in the US has become the growth engine for oil and gas production globally, and the napalm-based mix that was used then looks like an anachronism.
But fracturing using hydrocarbons is on the short list of options for the industry, which is looking for an effective substitute for water in hydraulic fracturing.
Environmental questions have arisen about water use and water quality in unconventional resource development, which requires millions of gallons of water per well to open path-ways for oil and gas trapped in nearly impermeable rock.
The Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America (RPSEA) has one waterless project in progress—to see if liquid nitrogen can fracture effectively—and the government/industry-funded research group is seeking more projects that experiment with waterless alternatives. “Water does work and has opened up the shale resources,” said Kent Perry, vice president of onshore programs at RPSEA. “(Fracturing) does take a lot of water. If you are in an area, particularly in parts of south Texas that are in a drought, even a little water is precious.”
Another driver for seeking waterless fractures is the search for a way to pro-duce more of the oil and gas out of the ground. Oil recovery in unconventional formations is generally well below that of conventional formations, with 3% to 6% estimated ultimate recovery rates in many unconventional oil formations.
“If you recover 10% (of the oil and gas), you are doing well but you are leaving 90% behind,” Perry said. “It is not just the fracture treatment. The whole approach will have to be looked at within those resources.”
Waterless fracturing could also remove an impediment to tapping unconventional formations in many spots around the world: limited water supplies. During a panel discussion at the recent International Petroleum Technology Conference, Peter Voser, chief executive officer of Shell Oil, said he “told the R&D group to come back with the waterless fracture.” His comment was delivered in Beijing, where Shell has been aggressively pursuing unconventional exploration opportunities in a country that has both enormous unconventional natural gas reserves and water shortages over large areas.