While hydraulic fracturing of shale continues to be a great success in the United States, with tens of thousands of new wells drilled every year for oil and natural gas production, popular resistance to this technology is gaining ground, according to surveys. The opposition, primarily environmentalists and people in areas where incidents of drinking water contamination have occurred, has, to its credit, succeeded in bringing about more regulations and better enforcement, but public opinion on this technology is still very mixed. One very cogent argument against fracking, with its relatively heavy use of water, is that water availability for fracking is coming in question in some areas where climate change is arguably responsible for severe drought and serious water shortages. Companies have therefore explored other fracturing fluids, primarily propane, and it appears that this technology will be increasingly used, in part to eliminate problems associated with water-based fracking, such as ground water contamination due to spills and difficulties in removing impurities from and treating fracking waste water that is released to streams. Widespread implementation of LPG-based fracking should help in dealing with the technology’s critics.
When small amounts of ferric sulfate are added to propane, gelling is promoted, and the fluid is then mixed with sand or other proppant to fracture the shale formation. Fewer chemical additives (e.g. biocides, corrosion prevention) are needed than with water-based fracking and the propane simply becomes part of the hydrocarbons being recovered. Gasfrac Energy Services, a Canadian company, has also used butane and pentane. About 2100 wells have been drilled using this technique. According to the company, the lower surface tension of LPG allows higher yields of hydrocarbons from the well, up to 30 percent higher, according to the company. However, the initial cost of using LPG instead of water is somewhat higher.
ECorp, a Texas-based company, is also using propane for hydraulic fracturing. Its CEO has been talking to European governments about drilling a few demonstration wells in France and Poland, both of which have substantial shale deposits. Western Europe desperately needs indigenous natural gas to lift the stranglehold that Russia’s Gazprom currently exerts, but opposition to fracking is exceptionally strong in France, for example. But the advantages of propane over water may allow developers to eventually overcome strong local resistance.