Terri-Jane Yuzda


Freelance Columnist

The New Face of Frac

Hydraulic Fracturing Plays Environmental Clean-up Role

Every oilfield professional is familiar with frac. Since the Pembina field was first tapped back in the 1950s, hydraulic fracturing has been the method of choice for boosting production of oil and natural gas.
But the scientific innovators who figured out how to force cracks in petroleum reservoirs by injecting high-pressure fluids never dreamed that similar techniques could be used to clean up polluted oilfield sites.

Frac Work

Frac Rite Environmental puts a process familiar to the oil industry to work as an on-site cleanup solution.

Three long-time APEGGA members have been refining the process, as well as marketing it commercially, since they incorporated Calgary-based Frac Rite Environmental Ltd. almost 10 years ago. And international customers in the Netherlands, Nigeria, the U.K. and the U.S. have been lining up to engage their services.

"I see this job as an opportunity to apply all the knowledge I've acquired for enhancing the productivity of oil and gas wells to the task of doing something with a more beneficial impact on society," says Rob Fulton, P.Chem., P.Geol., a scientist with 28 years of oilpatch know-how under his belt.

Brickyard Breakthrough
Mr. Fulton and his partners (Gordon Guest, P.Geol,. and Gordon Bures, M.Eng., P.Eng.) teamed up in 1995. But they scored their first major breakthrough last year, by wrapping up a particularly nasty cleanup in Kentucky.

Working with the U.S. National Science Foundation, Penn State University, the University of Illinois and a private American consultant, Frac Rite licked a problem which had been resisting more traditional remedies for a decade.
"It was an old brickyard contaminated with solvent, which threatened to start leaking into the Ohio River," Mr. Bures explains.

The solution: to apply on-site hydraulic fracturing techniques, thereby enhancing the permeability of the soil, while at the same time injecting a natural polymer known as chitin, a fisheries waste product found in lobster and crab shells.

"The chitin then degrades, creating volatile fatty acids, which help produce naturally occurring bacteria to consume the solvent contamination," explains Mr. Bures.
In short, the microbes feast greedily on the spill until every trace of toxicity is consumed.

Independent consultants subsequently confirmed the positive results. And a growing international clientele has been asking Frac Rite for help ever since.

Most American clients seek assistance for the reclamation of soil that's been ravaged by leaking solvents. Most recently, the U.S. Navy has asked the company to frac a polluted site in San Diego.

"We're after the most expensive barrel of oil – the one that's been spilled.”
-Rob Fulton, P.Chem., P.Geol.

More Ahead for Bioremedial Work
Frac Rite plans to implement a bioremedial strategy similar to the one used in Kentucky to eradicate a spill of highly toxic trichloroethylene on the Southern California base.

But, useful as it is for solvent spills, the technology is equally proficient at mopping up Alberta hydrocarbons.

"We're after the most expensive barrel of oil – the one that's been spilled," Mr. Fulton says with a smile.

Nevertheless, these intriguing pollution solutions have turned out to be a tougher sell at home.

In Alberta, the normal strategy for cleaning up a well site involves collecting the contaminated soil and carting it away.

"That's expensive and doesn't really do anything to treat the contaminants," Mr. Bures points out. "But we're using modified oilfield technology at shallow depths to fracture tight soils, which don't normally yield much contaminant once it's been spilled and soaked in."

The elite Frac Rite team has worked hard to get a simple message across to potential clients as well as to provincial regulators still unclear on the concept: their frac-based bioremedial methods work like a charm. The process is fast, efficient and relatively cheap.

"The typical cost to excavate disposed (i.e. contaminated) backfill and take it to a landfill runs $50-$75 a cubic metre. To put in a fracture network as we do costs about $15 a cubic metre," Mr. Bures says.

The Dig-and-Haul Mentality
" But up here, everyone's used to the dig-and-haul scenario. Our regulators still have to be educated on the efficacy and applicability of in-situ solutions. We have to show them how successful this approach can be.”

Based on results below the border and abroad, it's just a matter of time.

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