Quicksilver fracking without water on Wolf Mountain | SteamboatToday.com

Quicksilver fracking without water on Wolf Mountain

Routt County Road and Bridge Department Director Paul Draper walks past equipment with Brad Benton, a supervisor with GasFrac Energy Services, during a tour of an oil platform on Wolf Mountain.

Fracking information

Read a point/counterpoint on the relative merits of fracking for natural gas (not oil) sponsored by Yale University

Chemicals in gelled butane

What about chemical additives in the gelled butane being used to frack the Pirtlaw well on Wolf Mountain Ranch?

GasFrac personnel on site at the Quicksilver well being fracked this week in Routt County said they add three chemical compounds they purchase from a chemical supply outlet. Chemicals on the pad are stored within containment barriers.

According to material safety data sheets kept in records at the well pad, the compounds include:

• Activator XL-46D

Contains 30 to 40 percent ferric sulfate and smaller amounts of isopropanolamine, ammonium citrate and sodium xylene sulfonate.

Data sheet cautions that it can be “very toxic to aquatic organisms.” A section on first-aid indicates that inhalation of high amounts of vapor leads to cardiac arrest

• GELLP-10

Contains 70 to 90 percent mixed alkyl phosphate ester with smaller amounts of hexyl and amyl alcohol, N-butanol and phosphoric acid. Hazards include risk of serious damage to eyes if contacted, and wearing a full face shield while handling is required. Data sheet cautions to never pour water into the chemical.

• BRKLP-10

A slurry of magnesium oxide. Data sheet indicates it can be irritating to skin.

— Crews from Quicksilver Resources and the Canadian firm GasFrac Energy Services were preparing the fourth and final phase Wednesday of fracking an oil well on a sagebrush-covered hillside overlooking Morgan Bottoms along the Yampa River east of Hayden. And no water was being used in the process.

The fracking operations are intended to stimulate the Niobrara shale more than 8,000 feet beneath the surface and coax out the oil it is thought to contain.

"You have to liberate the hydrocarbons from the rocks," Quicksilver Senior Director of Government and Community Affairs Stephen Lindsey said. The fracking fluid is made slippery to reduce friction and allow the oil to flow out of the rock.

Lindsey, who traveled to Colorado from Fort Worth, Texas, this week, led a tour of the oil pad for Routt County officials Wednesday.

The end of fracking signifies a milestone in the course of developing the Pirtlaw well on the 20,000-acre Wolf Mountain Ranch, Quicksilver Completions Superintendent Carl Bowers said.

As fracking winds down, the date when the energy companies know if the well will produce oil is perhaps two to four weeks away. If the news is affirmative, Pirtlaw will represent the first piece of a complicated mosaic that will guide petroleum engineers on how best to extract oil from this part of western Routt County.

"If this turns out to be the best well ever, the question becomes, 'How many wells can we drill from this single pad?'" Bowers said. That would allow his company to realize efficiencies and reduce impact on the landscape.

But production from Pirtlaw, which is by no means guaranteed, also could allow Quicksilver to refine its best guess about how far away to build a second well.

Fracking with gelled butane

The fracking being undertaken at Pirtlaw is notably different from the most common form of the practice in that it is not relying on large amounts of water to create the tiny fissures in the shale that allow the oil to seep out of the rock.

"We used some water in the first 1,200 feet of drilling," Bowers said. "But this well is using zero water in fracking."

Instead, GasFrac is using gelled butane containing resin-coated sand to frack the well.

Choosing not to rely on water-based fracking reduces his company's impact on Routt County in terms of eliminating the heavy truck traffic needed to haul water as well as reducing the amount of sand needed in the process, Bowers said. But it's also the case that water is not well-suited to fracking operations in the Niobrara shale on the Western Slope, he added.

The butane injected into the well bore under high pressure will leave through pores extending about 15 inches into the shale and fracture it. When the butane retreats during the flow-back process, which is about to begin at Pirtlaw, the sand lubricated by the resin will remain in place to hold the fissures open.

Another advantage to butane, Bowers said, is that a good portion of it can be recovered during flow-back, the precursor to the beginning of oil production. A portion of it will be flared off, and flaring will continue around the clock during that period of several weeks. Motorists traveling east on U.S. Highway 40 will be able to see the flare from the hill above the Carpenter Ranch.

Preparing to frack

The act of fracking an oil well takes just 45 minutes and consumes about 1,500 gallons of diesel fuel to run the big pumps that pressurize the bore hole, Bowers estimated.

But the setup and safety procedures for each of the four fracking procedures being used at the Pirtlaw well on Wolf Mountain take three hours.

Among any downsides to the use of gelled butane at Pirtlaw is the fact that it is a volatile and flammable compound. Bowers and his crew spoke often about their safety procedures during the two-hour tour Wednesday.

The crew from Quicksilver and GasFrac wear flame-retardant suits during the procedure, but thanks to a high-tech command post, all of them are behind safety lines during the actual process. That's thanks in large part to a command trailer where workers control all of the equipment, from hydraulic rams to vents and butane tanks.

The trailer has more flat screens than a small sports bar, allowing data bin operator Anthony Ferrara to monitor the location of all personnel on the pad at all times while manipulating the controls either through a data cable or wirelessly.

In case of emergency, "I can shut everything except the pickup trucks down with this one switch," Ferrara said.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com