COMMENT BY AN OUTSPOKEN FORMER EMPLOYEE OF SHELL OIL USA
Reference the articles on the South African Karoo region shale gas production controversy, I have to side with Royal Dutch Shell, et al, on this issue.
I could write you a commentary on the hydraulic fracturing (‘frac’ing’) process and what it does, but it would be somewhat technical so I think I will let it slide.
Very briefly, ‘frac’ing’ is a very common technique used for stimulating production rates from both oil and gas reservoirs. There are two types of hydraulic ‘frac’ing’: acid frac’ing which is very common and done mostly in carbonate reservoirs, and sand or propant frac’ing which is also common and done in sandstone or shale reservoirs.
In many cases the hydraulic ‘frac’ing’ process is one where existing natural fractures in the rock are simply opened up and a sand propant is pumped into these fractures to keep them open. The sand is usually carried by a thick goo like substance, a natural plant based gel (guar gum made from guar beans: Guar – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia), that breaks down and liquefies with temperature. This substance is usually completely recovered during the flow testing process immediately after the rock is ‘frac’ed’. The gel is completely biodegradable. This loose sand that is pumped into the fractures is naturally very porous and permeable and allows gas and/or oil to flow into a production well at much, much higher rates that would normally be the case.
The ‘frac’ing’ of tight gas sands and shales it is a very environmentally benign reservoir stimulation process if done right. In the course of my career I have designed more than one ‘frac’ job for the stimulation of ‘tight’ gas sands.
It is my guess that many hundreds of thousands of hydraulic ‘frac’ jobs have been done on production wells in the US, and the vast, vast majority have caused absolutely no problems with potable water reservoirs. (Millions of oil and gas wells have been drilled in the continental US. Most were dry holes and were plugged.)
If hydraulic fracturing is not done right, it can do a great deal of irreparable harm to potable water reservoirs. There have been widespread problems in the US with the technique because the oil companies and oil field service companies, like Halliburton, Schlumberger, BJ Services, etc., have not ‘followed the rules’, and because there has been little or no industry oversight. Most of these problems occurred during the last 10 years as exploitation of shale gas reservoirs exploded, and during the Bush administration, where oversight of oil industry well completion practices was relaxed to the point it was almost non-existent. Suffice it to say, that good governmental oversight is necessary to prevent the types of industry abuses that have occurred in the US. It is utter brain dead folly to put the fox in charge of the hen house. The term ‘industry self – regulation’ is an oxymoron.
I think the current controversy over hydraulic fracturing in South Africa, the US, and elsewhere is to a great degree a lot of fear mongering by people who have absolutely no idea of what the devil they are talking about. Motives for opposing tight shale gas production are many and varied and include those who are deliberately attempting to cause trouble for the gas industry because of their opposition to the use of fossil fuels. Unfortunately, there is no currently available substitute for hydrocarbons fuels that will economically eliminate the use of these fuels on a large scale and in the near future.
However, a healthy informed debate about the hydraulic fracturing process should do no harm for the industry and it should allay the fears of the general public. It is incumbent upon the oil and gas industry to engage the public in this debate and provide the necessary educational information. If it does not do so then it may find itself on the wrong side of an largely contrived environmental debate, and it may find its ability to exploit this large untapped source of natural gas curtailed unnecessarily.