Hydrocarbons in the 21st Century: Green, Clean and Safe
Whatever notions, images or expectations you may have about hydrocarbons in the 21st century, this is not your grandfather’s – or even your father’s – oil and gas industry. Today’s advanced drilling equipment and techniques ensure that the world’s oil and gas wells can be drilled safely and with minimum impact to the environment. And the product is worth it. The increased production of natural gas from shale formations in the US provides a much cleaner alternative to the carbon-intensive coal historically used for electricity and home heating.
Thanks largely to natural gas, US carbon dioxide emissions in 2015 were 12% below 2005 levels, primarily because of changes in the electric power grid.
Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing are responsible for the surge in environmentally friendly natural gas supplies. Hydraulic fracturing has been around for more than 50 years, and technological advances over the past decade have made the approach significantly greener and safer with methods that streamline the process using less equipment, more sophisticated downhole tools, cleaner chemistry, and fewer resources.
The shale revolution has spawned other technological innovations that are benefitting the environment. Among them is the capture of flared natural gas at the wellhead, a breakthrough that dramatically reduces emissions while turning the gas into usable energy, such as propane and butane for refineries.
A drilling rig is a complex piece of machinery designed for a single purpose — to drill oil, gas or geothermal wells.
Whatever notions, images or expectations you may have about hydrocarbons in the 21st century, this is not your grandfather’s – or even your father’s – oil and gas industry.
Wells that once spewed powerful fountains of “black gold” are a thing of the past thanks to an industry that has gone high-tech and works with federal, state and local governments to develop strict and sweeping standards designed to reduce the environmental footprint, protecting the air we breathe, the water we drink and the land we cherish.
This technology revolution has been driven in large part by the move into unconventional, or shale, oil and gas production, a trend that began in the early 2000s in the US. The tools and methods that have been developed over the past decade – pad drilling, where multiple wellbores are drilled from a single surface location, sophisticated seismic and 3-dimensional reservoir modeling technologies that enable producers to better target the oil reservoir, and geosteering tools that help drillers stay in the “sweet spot” to name just a few – have made hydrocarbon production more efficient, and reduced the impact of noise and emissions on local communities.
These advanced tools and techniques ensure that hydrocarbon development can be conducted in harmony with nature, agriculture and everyday life.
Most significantly, increased production of natural gas from shale in the US is providing a clean alternative to carbon-intensive coal that has historically been used for electricity and home-heating.
In fact, in 2016, the US Energy Information Agency reported that carbon dioxide emissions in 2015 were 12% below 2005 levels, primarily because of changes in the electric power grid. That’s a direct result of the decreased use of coal and the increased use of natural gas for electricity generation.
Shale gas and oil are produced by combining horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, a technique that uses water and treated sand, or “proppant,” to stimulate tight rock formations. Hydraulic fracturing has been around for more than 50 years. But, technological advances over the past decade have made the approach significantly greener and safer with methods that streamline the process using less equipment, more sophisticated downhole tools, cleaner chemistry and fewer resources.
Wells are fractured at depths ranging from 3,000 to 15,000 feet, while aquifers of drinking water are much, much shallower, at 200-300 feet or less. Also, because the fractures don’t extend very far upward, they come nowhere near aquifers of precious drinking water. In fact, due to the complexity of the shale rock, engineers struggle to obtain large fracture heights! Hydraulic fracturing does use significant quantities of water. The water is pumped thousands of feet below the surface under very high pressure to fracture, or force open, the rocks to extract oil and gas. It can take up to 5 million gallons of water to hydraulically fracture one well.
While that sounds like a lot, it is minimal compared to water used in other applications. Mining, which includes all oil and gas activities, consumes less than 1.5 percent of all water usage in the United States, according to the US Geological Survey.
Further, the industry has found a variety ways to apply the three R’s for water -- reuse, recycle and reclaim -- reducing dramatically the amount of water required for the process. This operation treats and recycles 120 barrels of water per minute.
From major service companies to entrepreneurial start-ups, water-treatment technologies designed to purify fracturing water for reuse are dramatically reducing the need for a continuous supply of fresh water. This minimizes truck traffic to bring water onto well sites and also reduces the need for disposal wells to store used water.
Companies are even working on reclamation technologies that allow some purified frac water to be put back into reservoirs.
The industry also has made meaningful strides in developing chemicals that avoid pollutants, drinking water contaminants, carcinogens and other additives designated as toxic by the US Environmental Protection Agency, while also being open and transparent about the chemicals that are used. Today, consumers can visit FracFocus, a hydraulic fracturing chemical registry website designed to provide information about chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells, to learn about the chemicals being used – not just in general, but in a specific well.
Along with water purification, greener chemicals and sophisticated tools, the shale revolution has spawned other technological innovations that are benefitting the environment. Among them is the capture of flared natural gas at the wellhead, a breakthrough that dramatically reduces emissions while turning the gas into usable energy, such as propane and butane for refineries.
Companies like GTUIT, for example, capture flare gas at the wellhead and use specialized flow control, mechanical refrigeration and compression equipment in mobile and modular gas processing units to remove natural gas liquids and condition the gas at the well site.
Much of the captured gas is processed into compressed natural gas for use in the oilfield – clean fuel for drilling rigs, hydraulic fracturing trucks and other equipment and for heating the water used in hydraulic fracturing operations.
Ongoing innovation in the form of cleaner, greener technologies and a commitment to safety and transparency are redefining oil and gas production. Natural gas, in particular, is already proving it has a major role to play in reducing carbon emissions. This is progress! And, with the abundance of natural gas resources in the US and globally, this is just the beginning.