BY TOM KEYSER
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 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
"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
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.
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
"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.