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Following a stream of dire headlines about plummeting natural gas prices, explorers and producers are finally beginning to shift their attention to advancements on the production side – more specifically, to a new natural gas extraction method. The new technology pumps a thick gel made from propane into the ground instead of using traditional methods of hydraulic fracking that make use of a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals.

A planned shale gas drilling project in New York state has drawn global attention for its aim to make use of a waterless form of hydraulic fracking – a new technique designed to reduce the pollution associated with controversial natural gas drilling processes.

Propane replaces water and chemicals

According to an industry report, the project is focused on using a technology that pumps a thick gel made from propane into the ground as opposed to using traditional methods of hydraulic fracking that make use of a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals to extract natural gas reserves from deep shale formations. Unlike traditional technologies, the gel from the new liquefied propane gas (LPG) fracking method reverts to vapor while still underground, and as a result returns to the surface in a recoverable form.

According to its developer, Calgary-based GASFRAC Energy Services, the gel also holds advantages over water-based methods in that it does not carry the chemicals used during the drilling process back to the surface.

This process is significant in that if proven effective, it could potentially allow for the extraction of shale gas and oil from 135,000 acres in Tioga County, New York, breaking through the state’s current hydraulic fracking moratorium. The moratorium was imposed in 2010 after environmentalists expressed concerns that the drilling process could pose a threat to regional water supplies.

Additional assessment required

As a relatively new technology, LPG fracking does not yet fall under the state’s moratorium, but could be permitted under the New York Department of Environmental Conservation‘s (DEC) 1992 Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, according to Emily DeSantis, the DEC’s director of public information. She added that LPG fracking would also require assessment under the state’s Environmental Quality Review Act, or even a separate environmental impact statement “if the proposed activity may result in significant adverse environmental impacts not previously or adequately addressed.”

GASFRAC first used the patented process in a commercial setting four years ago and has since fracked over 1,300 wells in Canada and the US. The method was originally designed to improve the performance of low-pressure wells and has impressed those within the environmental arena.

“That has been the real surprise for us, an extra advantage,” said Doug McMillan, Vice President of GASFRAC. “In areas of drought-stricken Texas, water is impounded and sold for traditional fracking,” he continued. “And in the eastern US, there are concerns about water disposal and population density, but we can work there and are even going to be in New York.”

Increases oil and gas flow

According to a report by The Vancouver Sun, while GASFRAC charges a 50 percent premium in comparison to traditional fracking companies, there can be significant savings in water use, truck traffic, and easier site cleanups. Apart from logistical gains, the article also referred to the rise in well production as “spectacular.” Reports from the Cardium formation, which is west of Edmonton, displayed that LPG fracking results are “two to three times better” at increasing the flow of oil and gas in comparison to traditional methods.

This sentiment was echoed when San Antonio-based BlackBrush Oil & Gas announced a two-year contract with GASFRAC in the oil-rich Eagle Ford shale in Texas. BlackBrush’s co-CEO commented in a press release that using LPG brought “oil production at a sustainable rate weeks earlier than with the standard water frac and we are seeing huge savings on disposal of frac fluids.”

While the New York moratorium will not be lifted until a new Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement is complete, the Tioga County Landowners Group has announced to lease 135,000 acres to eCORP International, with the LPG fracking process making up one of the deal’s stipulations.

“Game-changing technology”

“We believe this game-changing technology will be embraced by, not only regulators and the industry, but the general population as well,” eCORP CEO John Thrash said in a press release.

“We believe that propane/butane gel could very well become the shale ‘treatment of choice’ in all countries because of its many technical and environmental benefits relative to large volume ‘slick’ water fracking techniques,” Mark Stauss, a senior director at eCORP, told InsideClimate News.

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