“Oil shock” is officially no longer a historical term. While consumers panic at the pump, their governments confront an old truth: a lack of domestic energy supply is an issue of both national and global security. Soaring costs for the development, production, transportation and refinement of crude oil are once again pumping up inflation and interest rates around the world, threatening a full economic recovery from the pandemic. Yet with enormous North American oil and gas reserves available, the major barrier to lowering energy costs is public perceptions around the environmental impact of oil and gas development. Fortunately, the oil and gas sector has been innovating to dramatically improve the environmental performance of the sector’s processes, like hydraulic fracturing.
ABUNDANT RESERVES, SCARCE SUPPLY
Canada has the third-largest oil reserves in the world, and its oil industry meets far higher environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards than almost any competing jurisdiction around the world. Although it is an ideal source of ethical supply for its own needs, as well as for export, domestic political barriers have stifled resource development, especially pipeline infrastructure. Unfortunately, for countries and consumers seeking cleaner oil options, this potential clean energy superpower actually imports oil from Saudi Arabia and other questionable suppliers, while the majority of its cleaner oil and gas industry has no direct access (aside from Newfoundland) to tide water.
In the United States, energy dependence is also a result of domestic politics. US voters are increasingly concerned about carbon emissions, so the political establishment lacks the will to drill domestic oil resources. To avoid partisan roadblocks on the path to energy independence, the earth’s largest and thirstiest economy needs to lower carbon emissions while increasing production.
But in the same way that electric vehicles (EVs) have disrupted internal combustion engines, innovative energy service companies are now using technology to disrupt energy production with lower emissions innovations.
A promising example of these innovators is RocketFrac, a Canadian energy services start-up that is using rocket fuel as part of its process to stimulate reservoir production. Well stimulation in tight rock formations is normally done by hydraulic fracturing (more commonly known as ‘fracking’), but RocketFrac has developed proprietary innovations that allow the company to eliminate the use of freshwater, sand, and other additives in the well stimulation process, getting the best of both worlds — stimulating production, but with fewer carbon emissions and lower environmental impact overall.
The Calgary-based company’s approach can help move energy-rich countries like the United States and Canada closer to energy independence by improving the environmental performance of well stimulation, addressing the concerns environmentalists have with conventional fracking’s carbon emissions, consumption of water, and risks of fracturing-induced earthquakes.
Specifically, the company is using a modest amount of solid rocket fuel as a propellant to create fractures in reservoirs. Deployed deeply within the earth, the rocket fuel replaces the millions of gallons of water and tons of sand used in conventional fracking. Side benefits include lower carbon emissions, water conservation, and a much smaller environmental footprint than traditional operations, which can employ dozens of people operating a fleet of trucks and other equipment.
“Conventional fracking actually has some environmental benefits in that it has reduced the footprint required for energy production,” says RocketFrac CEO Tom Whalen. “Through horizontal drilling techniques coupled with multi-stage fracking, a single well today can be 10-20 times more productive than one drilled 15-20 years ago. It’s like a night and day comparison — hugely more efficient and better for the environment. Our technology additionally lowers the operational footprint required for staging on an oil site, as less manpower and equipment is required. This significantly reduces carbon emissions, not to mention the absence of using fresh water and sand in the process.
While propellant has previously seen limited use in fracking, RocketFrac’s process is game-changing because the combination of its patent-pending tool and proprietary fuel blend can generate forces sufficient to replace millions of liters of water pumped over time at very high pressure. An added benefit Whalen mentions is that the gasses produced by the rocket fuel propellant process are already present naturally in the earth, and are not emitted into the atmosphere.
Ultimately, Whalen expects RocketFrac’s well stimulation process to service important forms of “green” energy, like hydrogen, which can be manufactured from natural gas. While hydrocarbons — composed of hydrogen and carbon — have been portrayed as a negative by some environmentalists, he notes that their components are far from harmful when managed responsibly and at safe concentrations. Hydrogen, for example, can be used as a fuel that emits only water vapor, while carbon can be captured and used in manufacturing or construction; it can even be injected back into underground reservoirs rather than emitted into the atmosphere. When safely returned and stored in the earth, where they originally came from, greenhouse gasses from hydrocarbons do not affect the climate. In time, it will be possible for the entire oil and gas sector to be net-zero, or even net-negative, for carbon emissions, simply by deploying already proven technologies.
“Carbon capture helps with the transformation into a hydrogen economy, as producing hydrogen from natural gas leaves behind carbon dioxide, which still needs to be utilized or stored,” Whalen observes.
While RocketFrac’s CEO sees significant growth of EVs, led by government incentives, in densely-populated areas of the western world, he says that combusting oil and gas will be necessary for decades to come. However, even as the percentage of hydrocarbons used in transportation is projected to decline, other industries, like plastics manufacturing, should more than pick up that slack in order to make durable, long-life type products. The focus will, therefore, be on greater efficiency and reuse, and on honing innovative new technologies that reduce the environmental footprint of the sector we all depend on for things like tractors and fertilizer for agriculture, or life-saving plastics for medical applications.
Whalen believes that much of the technology already exists to accomplish zero emissions; it’s just not affordable enough yet for global adoption. Although, as with any new technology, cost reductions typically follow adoption rate and scale. RocketFrac expects to go public this year with an eye on making its innovative technology help lead a new industry standard and improving overall energy efficiencies, regardless of source.
After all, oil shocks may be temporary, but RocketFrac is betting that investors will see its technological progress as being part of the longer term solution.
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