Fracking companies embrace solar to cut carbon emissions

The vast majority of hydraulic fracturing sites in the U.S. are powered by emissions-spewing, noisy diesel engines.

So, Ron Hyden, who’s seen a lot during his four decades in the oil patch, is eager to show off something new: a machine used in fracking that relies on gravity and electricity generated from solar panels to send sand into a labyrinth of tubes before it’s shot underground to prop open tiny cracks in natural gas- or oil-bearing rock.

The irony of gravity and solar panels being used to help capture fossil fuels isn’t lost on Hyden, Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its Dec. 3 issue.

“You would’ve never thought we’d give a flip about this,” Hyden said in a Texas twang as he gazes at the solar panels atop his new contraption. “We’re big into it.”

Hyden works for Halliburton Co. (HAL), remembered by many for having done the cement job on BP Plc (BP/)’s Macondo deep­water well prior to its 2010 blowout that caused the largest offshore oilspill in the U.S. The $31 billion oil-field giant is the world leader in providing services to companies involved in hydraulic fracturing or fracking — the process of breaking up shale by injecting high-pressure sand and chemically infused water to release hydrocarbons.

Halliburton calls its two-year-old solar-powered invention the SandCastle. It has rolled out dozens of SandCastles in the U.S.

Environmental Criticism

Stung by environmental criticism, the petroleum industry is trying to clean up its operations. Halliburton and the other three largest oil-field service providers spent $2.04 billion on research and development in 2011, up 32 percent from two years earlier. Some of that went to finding ways to make fracking more eco-friendly.

Other companies that have pitched alternative technologies include Chesapeake Energy Corp. (CHK) and General Electric Co., as well as oil-patch interlopers such as Verenium Corp. (VRNM), a biotech company, and Ecologix Environmental Systems LLC, which makes wastewater-treatment systems.

Beyond changing the public’s perception of fracking, the companies hope to get a bigger payday by providing more green- friendly services. Cleaning up wastewater from fracked and conventional wells, for example, already is an $18 billion annual business, Houston-based PacWest Consulting Partners LLC said. The oil-field industry is also hoping its green efforts will help soften calls for regulation.

Gas Leader

While fracking has vaulted the U.S. ahead of Russia as the world’s leading gas producer, its success has generated controversy. A single fracked well can consume as much as 6 million gallons of water — a threat to local water supplies, according to critics. Chemical-laden wastewater from fracking sites has been linked to pollution of streams and rivers.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has already promulgated rules aimed at reducing fracking emissions and has been asked by some states to consider whether fracking fluids should be regulated as a hazardous waste, and several states have moved to regulate the process.

Research has centered on two fronts: curbing air pollution, the aim of Halliburton’s SandCastles, and the bigger challenge of eliminating toxic chemicals. Ecologix sells technology that can recycle fracking wastewater by using air bubbles to separate out polluting solids, forming them into a sludge blanket that can be scooped up.

Verenium is marketing nontoxic enzymes aimed at reducing a caustic chemical, ammonium persulfate — a standard ingredient in hair bleach — used during fracking.

Reusing Water

GE has introduced the Mobile Evaporator, a boiler-on-wheels the size of a semi-truck that can be towed from well to well and cleans about 50 gallons (189 liters) of water a minute by boiling it to separate out contaminants.

The cleaned water can be reused or fed into waterways. Chesapeake Energy has developed an in-house initiative called Green Frac, which it said eliminated 25 percent of the additives used in fracking fluids in most of its shale wells.

Halliburton is promoting CleanStim, a fracking fluid with additives it said are made almost entirely of enzymes from fruit and vegetable compounds.

While the delivery method “doesn’t quite call for the downhole delivery of fruits and vegetables, it does rely on some of the same acids and enzymes present in those items,” Halliburton says on its website. The company won’t disclose the new ingredients, so far used in 23 wells, calling them proprietary.

In front of hundreds of oil and gas executives in San Antonio for the Society of Petroleum Engineers annual conference in October, Chief Executive Officer David Lesar took a swig of CleanStim from a small jar. “There’s not one petroleum product in it,” he said. Still, he added, “It doesn’t taste very good.”