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Fracking Well Microbes Could Be Boon or Barrier for Oil & Gas Industry

— October 27, 2016

Pipeline (2)“Life finds a way.” It’s a quote seen on inspirational posters, calendars, and mugs. One location where this phrase is particularly applicable, though, is in hydraulic fracturing wells. Scientists recently discovered unique colonies of microbial organisms growing in these wells. Microbes have a massive impact on the flow of elements through our environment, so their presence in highly inhospitable fracking wells could have widespread implications for the oil & gas industry.

Thirty-one unique colonies of microbes were found in two separate wells in Ohio. Despite being geographically separated by several hundred miles, the microbial communities were strikingly similar. One species, never before identified, has been dubbed Candidatus frackibacter. This microbe likely developed in hydraulic fracturing wells, having only been found in that environment. The rest of the colonies probably came from surface ponds and adapted to the high pressure, temperature, and salinity of the shale well environment.

Increased Yield

The impacts of these microbes on the oil & gas industry are multifold. First, a number of the microbes identified are methanogens, which produce methane as a byproduct of metabolism. Methane is a key component of natural gas, so the presence of methanogens could actually increase the net yield of a natural gas well. Osmoprotectants, compounds produced by certain bacteria to protect them from very high salt concentrations, are converted into methane by these microbes. In this case, the compound in question is glycine betaine. More research must be done, but someday oil & gas companies might stimulate wells with osmoprotectants in addition to fracturing fluid. The process of exploiting microbial methane is already in use in the coalbed methane industry.

Potential Damage

On the other hand, these microbes could have a profound impact on the longevity of fracturing infrastructure. Corrosion of metal pipes can be a microbial process, and can happen rapidly in aqueous systems once microbes grow to a sufficient concentration. Microorganisms can greatly change the pH and alkalinity of water, leading to corrosion. This is one motivation behind adding chlorine or other disinfectants to drinking water distribution systems. As microbes become more adapted to fracturing wells, the rate of corrosion could increase over time, resulting in additional costs to natural gas producers. Thus, it may become necessary to inhibit growth of microorganisms, including the methanogens mentioned above.

Previously thought too inhospitable an environment to support life of any kind, we now know hydraulic fracturing wells host their own unique population of microorganisms. These microbes can have a huge impact on the productivity—and lifespan—of these wells. As their exact composition becomes better understood, the oil & gas industry will need to make adjustments to maximize profits and minimize any potential damage.


Hurdles Remain for Japanese Gas Find

— March 20, 2013

According to a New York Times report, Japan has successfully mined natural gas from the sea.  While this sounds like major news, the feat is neither all that new nor all that significant.

The availability of methane hydrates as a hydrocarbon resource has been known for centuries, and several other Japanese and Canadian experiments have successfully brought up methane from hydrate beds.  An enormous amount of methane lies beneath the floors of the world’s oceans.  The Japanese research project is a small step towards the economical and safe exploitation of methane hydrates; but a number of advances still remain to be achieved:

1).  Environmental containment: Methane hydrates are essentially ice crystals with a few molecules of methane trapped inside.  But the crystals aren’t blocks of ice like the cubes in your freezer.  They are fragile, lattice-like frames.  Any disturbance to a methane hydrate bed can lead to a cascade of collapsing crystals, followed by one gigantic belch of methane gas from the seabed.

This is bad for two reasons.  The gas you want to mine escapes, and that bubble of valuable hydrocarbons now enters the atmosphere, where it traps heat at nearly twenty times the rate of carbon dioxide.  Some even speculate that methane burps from the seabed caused prehistoric global warming incidents.

How do you stick a drill-pipe into sediment that has the consistency of cobwebs, without disturbing it?  There’s probably an answer out there waiting to be discovered — but nobody knows how to do it today.  And there’s no sign that the Japanese project has succeeded in doing so.

2).  Economics: Most methane hydrate deposits exist underneath dozens or hundreds of feet of mud and gravel.  Where the mud stops and the methane starts is a very blurry line.  Thus the fluid that’s brought to the surface will include an enormous amount of extraneous material.  That problem can be solved relatively easily, but not cheaply.

Separating the methane from everything else will be an enormously expensive task that far exceeds the separation requirements of other “tight” natural gas resources (such as coal-seam methane and shale gas).  There’s no simple way around that cost, which means the extraction costs of seabed methane will always be higher than any other gas deposits.  At the current natural gas prices of $3.64 per million metric BTU, there’s no economic rationale for investing in methane hydrate projects.

3).  Infrastructure: There is no industrial infrastructure currently built to mine, process and deliver methane from seabed deposits.  Unlike traditional underground formations that are highly concentrated, seabed methane beds spread over vast areas.

To eventually extract that methane will probably require specialized floating infrastructure that can follow the resource.  The creation of an entirely new infrastructure to gather the hydrates and turn them into usable fuel, will require tens of billions of dollars worth of all-new, untested equipment.

While some of the breathless reports about the Japanese “discovery” claim that a brand new fossil fuel resource has been stumbled upon, the facts are a little less sensational.


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