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Does Fracking Have a “Clean” Future?

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“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 a national and global security issue. Soaring costs for developing, producing, transporting and refining crude oil are again pumping up inflation and interest rates worldwide, threatening a full economic recovery from the pandemic. However, with enormous North American oil and gas reserves available, public perceptions around the environmental impact of oil and gas development are the primary barriers to lowering energy costs. 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. Nevertheless, although it is an ideal source of ethical supply for its own needs and 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 imports oil from Saudi Arabia and other questionable suppliers, while most of its cleaner oil and gas industry has no direct access (aside from Newfoundland) to tidewater.

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 most significant and thirstiest economy needs to lower carbon emissions while increasing production.

However, as electric vehicles (EVs) have disrupted internal combustion engines, innovative energy service companies are now using technology to disrupt energy production with lower emissions.

Environmental Innovation
A great example of these innovators is RocketFrac Cleantech, a Canadian energy services start-up that uses rocket fuel as part of its process to stimulate reservoir production. Well-stimulating tight rock formations are usually done by hydraulic fracturing (more commonly known as ‘fracking’). However, RocketFrac Cleantech 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 uses a modest amount of solid rocket fuel as a propellant to create reservoir fractures. 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.

“Compared to conventional hydraulic fracturing, our technology greatly reduces the environmental footprint required for energy production,” says RocketFrac Cleantech Interim CEO, Jim Vagher. “It requires far less personnel and none of the pumping equipment, and we don’t need to mine, transport, and consume the massive amounts of water and sand used in hydraulic fracturing. Combined, all of this dramatically reduces carbon emissions, and eliminates any hazardous fluid disposal.”

While propellant has previously seen limited use in fracking, RocketFrac Cleantech’s process is game-changing because its patent-pending tool design and proprietary fuel blend can generate forces sufficient to create radial fractures and replace millions of liters of water pumped overtime at very high pressure. An added benefit 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.

Energy Transformation
Ultimately, Vagher expects RocketFrac Cleantech’s well-stimulation process to service primary 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 safely. 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.

“We already have technology to capture any carbon emitted from hydrocarbon combustion, so it can be safely stored underground, be used to strengthen concrete, or be stored or used in other ways,” Vagher observes. “We know that all of our vehicles and energy generation can be Net Zero with such innovation, it is just a matter of getting the costs down over time.”

While RocketFrac Cleantech’s CEO sees significant EV growth, 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 mining and manufacturing, should more than pick up that slack in order to make durable, reusable products. Therefore, the focus will be on greater efficiency and reuse and 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.

Vagher believes that oil and gas will be an important part of the energy mix for many decades to come, and the best approach we can take is to improve the environmental performance of the sector as much as possible, including dramatic carbon emission reductions. Much of the technology already exists to accomplish zero emissions; it is just not affordable enough for global adoption. Although, as with any new technology, cost reductions typically follow adoption rate and scale. RocketFrac Cleantech expects to go public this year with an eye on making its innovative technology help lead a new industry standard and improve overall energy efficiencies, regardless of source.

After all, oil shocks may be temporary, but RocketFrac Cleantech is betting that investors will see its technological progress as part of the longer-term solution.

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