Fracking, more properly known as hydraulic fracking, is a time-tested method for mining natural gas, shale, and oil. Traditionally, water, mixed with a number of additives, is pumped into deep rock formations. This process creates cracks that allow the desired material, i.e. gas or oil, to flow to the surface more easily. Mining operations then collect the material for further processing and use.
Since the 1950s, we have started to better understand the environmental impact of “traditional” fracking. Firstly, the water left after the operation can bring pollutants to the surface and disrupt the natural water in the area. In extreme cases, fracking has even been linked to earthquakes. Even in ideal circumstances, fracking uses an abundance of freshwater. Global projections indicate that demand for freshwater will rise, limiting access to it for mines. Additionally like in any heavy industry, there is a plethora of machinery involved, which uses diesel engines and generators. The negative effects of this sort of fracking have almost made it a dirty word, one which the average person associates with environmental disruption and pollution.
So is this conception of fracking still valid? While advancements in mining technology are not applied uniformly to the entire industry, there have been significant innovations. Let’s take a look at some examples of how companies have revolutionized green fracking.
Green fracking technology:
- The mining industry is already taking huge strides to limit the use of diesel as a fuel for machines and equipment. This is similarly true for the machinery used in fracking. Some operations take this further. The Medina County oil well in Texas is partnering with Houston-based Quidnet to release the water pumped into the ground through fracking. The pressurized water, on release, will power a turbine to generate carbon-free electricity, which then powers the mine. This method produces enough electricity to be sold to the community at affordable prices. Some mines have found that this technology cuts their carbon emissions by two-thirds when used to power an electric fleet of vehicles. The goal is to reach energy-self sufficiency in each well.
- Quidnet is not the only company creating a profit from gree fracking. Texas-based Fervo Energy harvests steam created by the blisteringly hot underground rocks. Fervo Energy pumps water underground and then extracts it as steam to power turbines. Currently, their designs produce about thirty megawatts of electricity per turbine. Similar to geothermal energy, this method can create a steady, sustainable stream of electricity for local communities. If maintained, older wells can be converted to geothermal energy stations when the last bits of oil and gas are collected. This is not necessarily possible in every location, but neither is solar power or wind energy. So possibly, wells with this technology could solve sustainable energy problems in some areas.
- A major drawback of fracking is the water that gets pumped into the soil. Since 2009, there have been multiple innovations in alternatives to water. For example, some mines employ a gel-like fluid mixed with propane. It requires only one-eighth of the volume, compared to water. Recently, some European mines have begun to use a water-less alternative drilling technology called Octopus. This technology uses hundreds of micro laterals to bring the product to the surface without pumping water into the ground. Its creators claim that it brings the added benefits of reducing earthquake risks. In general, waterless fracking is a growing field with the potential to remove one of the main drawbacks of extracting oil and gas in such a way.
- If a company prefers to still use water, there are still ways to limit any environmental disruption. Collected wastewater can be processed and treated, before being pumped back into the well. Harm to local water supplies is cut, while also removing possibly dangerous compounds and chemicals from the surface. Alternatives to local freshwater can also be used, for example, brine or even saline water, if available. Water processing and purification is a growing industry that can synergize well with the mining industry.
These are just a few of the methods that fracking operations employ to cut emissions and leave the environment unharmed. The future of fracking may even bring a boom in sustainable energy as technology develops. Over time, the industry may even be able to rehabilitate the term “fracking” but only if they are proactive in adopting sustainable technologies.
A core issue many companies face when designing new wells is the question of profitability. Some wells end up being duds or have less yield than predicted. Oil and gas wells are often more temporary than traditional mines. Companies are always faced with the question of how much to invest in a venture, particularly when it may produce nothing or less than expected. Much of green fracking is a new technology, which can be more costly to implement. This is why it is vital to learn from others’ experiences to make more sustainable decisions.
Companies around the globe are actively seeking means and methods to limit their carbon footprint. Join key decision makers at the 2nd Energy Transition for the Metals and Mining Industry conference, on January 19-20th, in Toronto, Canada. Industry leaders will gather to discuss and exchange the best practices for implementing green fuel and sustainable infrastructure.