The Role of Natural Gas in Frac Mining
What is Fracking?
Hydraulic fracturing, commonly called fracking, is a drilling technique used for extracting oil or natural gas from deep underground. In simplified terms, the fracking process starts with a well that is drilled vertically or at an angle from the surface to a depth of 1 to 2 miles or more, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The vertical well is then encased in steel and/or cement to ensure the well doesn’t run the risk of leaking into any groundwater. Once the vertical well reaches the deep layer of rock where natural gas or oil exists, the well curves about 90 degrees and begins drilling horizontally along that rock layer. Horizontal drilling can extend for more than 1 mile.
After the fracking well is fully drilled and encased, fracking fluid is pumped down into the well at extremely high pressure. The pressure is powerful enough to fracture the surrounding rock, creating fissures and cracks through which oil and gas can flow. The fluid that is pumped into the well to fracture the rock is called “slickwater”. It is mostly water but contains additives and chemicals that serve an engineering purpose. Additives can include detergents, salts, acids, alcohols, lubricants, and disinfectants.
Chemical additives usually make up 0.5 to 2 percent of the slickwater, with the remaining 98 to 99.5 percent consisting of plain water. In addition to the water and chemical additives, proppants such as sand and ceramic particles are also pumped into the fracking well. These proppants are added to prop open the fractures that form under pressure ensuring that gas and oil can continue to flow freely out of rock fractures even after pumping pressure is released.
The Emergence of Fracking in the United States
Though fracking is used worldwide to extract gas and oil, a fracking boom has occurred recently in the United States, partly driven by concerns over the costs associated with imported oil and other fossil fuels as well as energy security. This desire for uninterrupted access to energy at affordable prices in ways that are impervious to international disruptions is the driving force behind the boom we are seeing in West Texas.
In 2000, there were about 276,000 natural gas wells in the United States. But by 2010, the number of wells had almost doubled to 510,000 and about 13,000 new wells were drilled every year according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
The Challenges of Fracking
One major challenge to all of this growth is that oil companies are having difficulty obtaining the sand they use in the fracking process. To solve this, oil companies are opening their own sand mining operations in the same remote areas as their wells. Developing these new frac sand mines and on-site processing facilities in West Texas poses its own set of challenges. One of the biggest hurdles miners face is limited access to power grids. These mining operations are located in remote areas of Texas where utility power is simply not available. To solve this, many companies are turning to mobile natural gas power generation systems as a solution to this problem.
Downtime is the number one enemy of all frac mining operations, but it can be minimized with efficient temporary power solutions, shaving weeks off the pre-construction process and ensuring uninterrupted service. Efficient and well-maintained power generation systems, electrical distribution equipment, and 24/7 remote monitoring are all key to streamlining frac mining operations during all stages of the process.
Another challenge of being located in such remote areas is the housing of workers. Crews working to set up and then run these operations need a place to stay. Comfortably housing these employees with limited access to power requires the use of mobile generators and power distribution equipment. These power systems are used to provide electricity to mobile housing units as well as the on-site administrative offices until utility power can be established. Frac mines that leverage efficient and reliable mobile power generation solutions ultimately help operators get online faster, improving cash flow and reducing upfront capital costs.
The Role of Natural Gas in Frac Mining
The use of natural gas-powered equipment provides significant benefits allowing mining companies to get online quicker and reduce the time between the feasibility stage and production stage in remote mining locations where utility power sources are unavailable.
Natural gas power generation is the solution to the temporary power needs of fracking sites. Natural gas provides a cost-effective option that is better for the environment. Power generation costs have been reduced while also meeting EPA Quad “J” regulations to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint with “lean-burn” technology. The combustion is considered “lean” when excess air is introduced into the engine along with the fuel. When this technology is used for long-term operations, natural gas units have been shown to offer total cost savings of 40-45 percent compared to diesel units, primarily due to savings in fuel. Natural gas also burns approximately 85 percent cleaner than diesel. Natural gas generators become the primary choice for mining sites when deciding on mobile power generation needs.
Cultivating the Permian Basin
Up until recently, the sands of the Permian Basin were considered near-worthless. That was, until oil and gas operators found that the more sand they pumped into a well, the greater the production. The Permian Basin’s horizontal wells and other nearby formations are now estimated to consume 200,000 pounds more sand per well than in 2017. This fact combined with the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s recent forecast that average total crude oil production in the United States — mostly from the Permian — is expected to reach a record level of 9.9 million B/D in 2018, positions frac sand miners in West Texas for a massive growth opportunity.
Fracking has revived the Permian after years of flat output and could be used there for decades to come. Industry estimates say the Permian, which has helped put the United States on the path to becoming the world’s largest crude oil producer, has recoverable reserves that exceed all oil and gas produced there over the last 90 years, according to the Texas Railroad Commission.
With the booming frac mining industry in the Permian Basin, mobile natural gas power generation is the most desirable option due to its efficiency, functionality, and cost-effectiveness. Implementing a mobile natural gas power generation system is an effective and reliable solution for frac sand mining in remote areas especially with the North American proppant demand expected to reach an all-time high in 2018.