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'Fracking' for oil likely to grow in Alaska

Oil company blames fears on misinformation, promises transparency

Posted: March 22, 2012 - 11:07pm
Dustin Bruce, an engineer with Pioneer Natural Resources, gives a speech in the Resources Committee's Lunch and Learn series titled "Hydraulic Fracturing 101" at the Capitol on Thursday.  Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
Dustin Bruce, an engineer with Pioneer Natural Resources, gives a speech in the Resources Committee's Lunch and Learn series titled "Hydraulic Fracturing 101" at the Capitol on Thursday.

Boosting oil production with “fracking” is likely to help Alaska get more oil out of older or other challenged resources, legislators were told Thursday.


Using the process formally called “hydraulic fracturing” but better known as fracking can give aging wells “a kick in the pants,” said Dustin Bruce, an exploration engineer with Pioneer Natural Resources.


Bruce defended the practice, sometimes controversial in the Lower 48, saying all the complaints of water well contamination came from “misinformation.”


Fracking has been around for decades, as the process was used on older, traditional vertical wells. It really took off when advances in horizontal drilling technology greatly expanded the areas in which it could be used.


The results, Bruce said, have been great, with rock formations once thought incapable of producing oil and gas becoming economic, while in other cases older oil and gas fields saw their lives extended.


“It’s really brought new life into fields that others have written off,” he said.


And fracking is also the future of oil production, as it is increasingly unlikely that big new conventional oil fields like Prudhoe Bay will be found.


“When they say there’s no more easy oil, they’re right, there’s no more drilling vertical wells with easily extracted large volumes of oil,” Bruce said.


Fracking is already in use in Alaska, with 25 percent of all wells being hydraulically fractured, Bruce said, citing data from the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.


Pioneer in 2008 became the North Slope’s first independent operator when it began producing from its Oooguruk field just offshore.


Pioneer is also exploring onshore, and fracking is likely to make those efforts more productive and more likely to be successful.


Drilling in Alaska is particularly expensive, but horizontal drilling allows as many as 40 wells to be drilled from a single pad.


“Horizontal drilling has really opened up the landscape, touching more reservoir from a small area,” he said.


The fracking process creates fractures that go out through the rock, creating fissures through which oil and gas can flow into the well.


The industry in the Lower 48 has been plagued by claims that hydraulic fracturing has contaminated nearby water wells, but Bruce said that’s not happening.


“Honestly, I don’t think any is caused by hydraulic fracturing,” he said.


The companies doing fracking drill through the aquifer to oil and gas far below, and line the borehole with steel pipe and cement to prevent contamination, he said.


The claims of contamination are misinformation, he said.


“You go on YouTube and you see some guy who is lighting a five-gallon jug of what is claimed to be drinking water and you have a flame,” he said.


To protect themselves from misinformation, companies are now testing nearby wells before they drill in case the wells were already contaminated, he said.


Pioneer Alaska’s Public Affairs Director Casey Sullivan said the company was participating in an industry transparency effort to post all of its fracking chemicals online at a site called www.fracfocus.org.


The fluid that is pumped into wells for fracking is almost 100 percent water, but may contain half a percent of chemicals designed to help the process work better. Well specific data on those chemicals are on the site, he said.


The fracking chemicals are mostly simple household chemicals, the sort of things you’d have under your kitchen sink, Bruce said.


What’s not listed on the site are proprietary additives, such used by fracking pumping contractors such as Schlumberger, an oilfield services company working in Alaska.


“We make everything public except for those proprietary chemicals,” Bruce said.


Claims of chemical and other well contamination haven’t been a problem in Alaska, he said.


• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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