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Oil and gas industry makes strides with safer fracking fluid

Oil and gas industry makes strides with safer fracking fluid

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News & Events - Engineering News

February 5, 2013

The engineering innovation that brought about the shale revolution in U.S. oil and gas production may promise to end the country's dependence on foreign energy imports, but plenty of Americans are still wary of the new technology.

In an effort to ease some of these fears, The Associated Press reports that leading oil and gas services firm Halliburton has started to push a new type of hydraulic fracturing fluid that uses nothing but food-industry ingredients.

Questioning new methods
Hydraulic fracturing - the process, generally known as fracking, of blasting water, sand and chemicals into the ground the break up dense stone trapping oil and gas in the ground - has helped the U.S. reverse its decades-long decline in production by tapping into massive unconventional reserves.

However, there have been a number of major complaints about the process, from general opposition to the continuing use of fossil fuels to highly specific concerns about the impact this fracking fluid could have on groundwater.

Industry officials have long insisted that, with shale wells going down more than one mile into the ground, the risk of contaminating groundwater is minimal. But some environmental advocates insist the danger still exists, while others point to other possibilities.

"Most people agree there are no confirmed cases [of groundwater contamination] so far," Scott Anderson, a senior adviser at the Environmental Defense Fund, told the AP. "The most likely of exposure is not from the fracking itself. It is from spills before the fracking fluid is injected."

Less than crystal clear 
One of the big complaints about fracking over the past few years has always been that the public is left largely in the dark about what goes into the process. Some states have imposed stricter requirements for information about the contents of fracking fluid, but some allow companies to remain entirely silent so long as the components do not fall on a certain list of toxic substances.

Some major players in the industry, such as Exxon Mobil vice president of public and government affairs Ken Cohen, have spoken in favor of greater transparency in fracking fluids, and many have released broad overviews of the largely innocuous list of common chemicals involved in the process.

Among these chemicals are ingredients as basic as salt and citric acid, along with other components common to household cleaners and other similar products.

However, when companies have the option not to reveal their formulas, many seem to opt out. The Dallas Observer notes that data from PIVOT Upstream Group show more than 10,000 in roughly 12,500 fracked wells in Texas in 2012 chose to claim an exemption under that state's new transparency law.

A better recipe
So Halliburton took the next step to avoid potential concerns about water contamination - they removed the actual contaminants.

Two years ago, the company announced that it had developed and begun testing a new type of fracking fluid known as CleanStim that would use only ingredients approved for human consumption. The introductory news conference is famous for the stunt where Halliburton CFO Mark McCollum drank a sip of the fracking fluid to prove how harmless it really was.

While it may not have actually tasted like beer as McCollum claimed at the press conference, the company reports that the fluid has proven to be an effective engineering tool, getting high marks from clients who have opted to use it.

Of course, the new fracking solution is not necessarily an easy solution. Halliburton has chosen not to reveal which clients are using the new fluid or how common it has become, which could be important given that the components are more costly than those for traditional fracking fluid. In addition, there are still potential environmental threats from the chemicals that can be brought up along with the fluid after the fracking process, from heavy metals to radioactive elements.

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