Fracking, has never been popular among environmentalists, who have slated the practice because it consumes large amounts of fresh water, creates toxic liquid waste and releases greenhouse gases, most notably the potent, heat-trapping methane. Yet, if done responsibly, through a combination of technological and behavioural improvements, fracking can not only be relatively environmentally friendly, but also very cost-effective – a boon for oil and gas companies focused on deriving as much benefit possible from their operations while keeping the costs as low as is functionally viable.

Traditionally, fracking, in which high-pressure, chemically treated water is employed to crack rock formations and release trapped oil and gas, has been decried by environmentalists due to its consumption of fresh water, although this does compare favourably with the amount of water required in the production of other energy sources, such as biofuels; the creation of toxic liquid waste, which can contain a number of harmful pollutants including salts, chemical additives and naturally occurring contaminants; and its greenhouse gas emissions, with the main concern on this front being companies allowing a significant amount of natural gas to escape, because methane, its main component, is vastly more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2 is.

Yet, due to technical innovation and behavioural alteration at some of the industry’s most forward-thinking operators, things have been changing.

At ExxonMobil, for example, researchers are developing a new generation of fracking fluids that do not pose a hazard to the environment, in an effort to win over Europeans sceptical of the practice – in Germany, for instance, fracking may only be authorised if it is ‘clarified beyond doubt’ that there is no risk to water quality and that environmentally harmful chemicals are not used. Meanwhile, Houston-based Apache has been looking at the whole picture, from sourcing additives to eliminating downhole leaks – and not just because the company "takes pride in doing things responsibly".

"The industry’s goal has always been to derive the most benefit at the least cost," notes Cal Cooper, director, emerging technology, special projects at Apache. "While the environmental benefits [of ‘greening’ fracking operations] are obvious and valid, such practices can also have the benefit of positive financial implications."

Technological innovations

So what are the key technologies and techniques being used at Apache to make its fracking operations more environmentally friendly and, in the process, cut its costs?

"Many of Apache’s enhancements are related to its careful analysis and proactive consideration of the whole picture," says Cooper. "It starts with wanting to do the right thing and planning to do so from inception."

"One challenge that consistently and predictably affects implementation of changes in any operation is the human factor." 

This process begins with sourcing the products and additives used throughout operations. "Apache has been very successful in identifying more environmentally benign chemical additives than are often suggested by traditional suppliers," says Danny Durham, the company’s director, global upstream chemicals, E&P technology.

Apache has also pushed innovation in several areas that have not traditionally been major focuses of environmental efforts, according to George King, its distinguished engineering adviser, E&P technology. "These areas include: integration of water recycling rather than total disposal of produced water; reducing the need for drilling out frac plugs [which reduces equipment time on site and flow time to open tanks], and active participation with other operators in examination of well integrity after fracturing and before any potential refracturing efforts [helping to eliminate downhole seep-type leaks]," he says. "Efforts on cementing have also improved how to more effectively monitor cement quality in very inexpensive ways."

Moreover, Apache has joined forces with the Environmental Defence Fund (EDF), which is sponsoring the ‘Methane Detectors Challenge’, alongside four other oil and gas companies, in an attempt to develop and commercialise cost-effective technology that provides real-time detection of methane.

Human challenges

Of course, introducing new systems is never without its challenges, particularly when technology – and especially new equipment – is involved.

"Apache works hard to reduce costs by leveraging technology, and sometimes that requires overcoming resistance to change, especially when there is some risk it won’t work," Cooper explains. "One challenge that consistently and predictably affects implementation of changes in any operation is the human factor."

At Apache, therefore, great care is taken to educate employees and contractors on the importance of behavioural changes, which can create important but sometimes subtle environmental benefits. "Apache is recognised within and outside the industry for distribution of information via publications and presentations where company representatives have met with, listened to and spoken with representatives from US Federal and State Governmental departments, US national laboratories, foreign governments and entities, academic institutions, environmental NGOs, investors, public gatherings and engineering societies," King notes. "The company shares many lessons learnt and advances in fracturing, well integrity, chemical usage reductions and greener chemistry approaches."

For example, Apache is a founding member of the American Chemical Society Green Chemistry Institute’s hydraulic fracturing round table. "This has the goal of integrating green chemistry and engineering into the chemical supply chain for hydraulic fracturing operations," explains Durham, adding that Apache is keenly aware that no matter how good the initiative looks on paper, it’s worthless if it’s not being implemented in the field.

Future improvements

So what impact has all of this actually had on Apache’s operations and the industry more widely?

"Alternative sourcing has identified cheaper yet more beneficial products," says Durham. "Additionally, innovations in water recycling and reuse have significantly reduced Apache’s overall water consumption and, in some operating areas, eliminated its demand for any fresh water at all."

These efforts and innovations are also being noticed by independent third-party observers, according to Durham, and, in the process, are helping to move the whole industry forwards.

"Apache ranked fifth among E&P operators and increased its score from the previous year in the 2014 edition of ‘Disclosing the Facts’, an investor-initiated analysis of how E&P companies are working to manage their operational risks," he explains.

"Apache personnel also presented on fracturing dozens of times in 2014 at open public forums, and have published four major technical papers on work relevant to environmental risk reduction in well construction, fracturing, plug-and-abandonment and unconventional well operation. The papers on operations and fracturing risk have been downloaded well over 15,000 times."

There’s always more work to be done, however, and not only by Apache. "The industry understands that it is judged by the least among it, and no matter how much progress has already been made, the industry is cognisant that there is always room for improvement and innovation," Cooper emphasises.

In the coming years, he believes this will take place in three key areas: water use, product sourcing and, increasingly, improved resource-recovery rates.

"This goes back to the industry’s overall goal of deriving the most benefit for the least possible cost," he explains. "As technology use and knowledge increase, the industry is becoming progressively more adept at producing higher percentages of the in-ground resources, which creates more-efficient operations and reduces waste."

Apache hopes to be at the forefront of these industry improvements. "Each year, our engineers look for improvements in tools, equipment, monitoring efficiency and chemicals by examining dozens of new technologies from inventors and small companies, and participating in field trials with the most promising ideas," King concludes.

More to do on methane

One of the key complaints environmentalists have when it comes to fracking is that many companies are allowing a significant amount of natural gas to escape during the process. This is a problem because methane, the main component of natural gas, is an extremely potent greenhouse gas – it is has a significantly stronger effect on the atmosphere than CO2.

Yet, according to Michael Obeiter, senior associate for the World Resource Institute (WRI) climate programme, it simply doesn’t make sense for operators not to employ technology to reduce methane emissions: not only will it reduce their environmental impact but it can also have a positive impact on costs. Unfortunately, the industry as a whole doesn’t seem to have realised this yet.

"Some of the larger operators are starting to lead the way on reducing methane emissions from their operations," Obeiter says. "Efforts like the Center for Sustainable Shale Development and the One Future Coalition are good examples of companies voluntarily adopting best practices in some areas.

"However, recent studies show that these efforts aren’t enough; methane emissions are still far too high, which is bad news for climate change and represents significant lost revenue to the natural gas industry."

Obeiter is keen to emphasise that reducing methane emissions doesn’t have to involve increased costs for oil and gas operators: "Many existing technologies are available to reduce methane emissions, and a significant percentage of those are highly cost-effective – the additional revenues a company receives from selling the captured natural gas can pay for the emissions control technologies in a matter of a few months to a few years.

"Of course, the cost-effectiveness of any technology depends on the scale of emissions from the source it is addressing, but many technologies and practices can reduce methane emissions by more than 90%."

So what’s stopping the industry and what can industry stakeholders do to really help reduce methane emissions from fracking?

"We’re talking about complex and capital-intensive extraction and transmission machinery and techniques here, so it stands to reason that many technologies to prevent leakage carry considerable expense," Obeiter says. He is keen to point out, however, that they also address very large sources of methane emissions and can still be highly cost-effective; perceptions simply need to change.

"To my mind, there are a number of ways the industry and the government can address the perception that high costs are inhibiting greater uptake of emissions control technologies and practices," he says. "First, the Department of Energy can work with the private sector to find ways to reduce the costs of those technologies. Second, because there is often a misalignment between who bears the costs and who receives the benefits of emissions control technologies, there is a clear need for the Federal Government to set standards to require best practices throughout the natural gas supply chain."