August 26, 2013
By Brian Merchant
Nobody seems to like fracking these days, so maybe they’ll like dropping acid better. That’s actually the strategy a crop of oil companies are planning to use to get at the vast store of oil underneath California’s Monterey Shale rock formation. There’s some 15.4 billion barrels of oil locked away down there, and oil companies are keen on fracking for it. Not only is fracking unpopular in the resolutely liberal state, but it’s simply not working well, either.
See, hydraulic fracturing-the practice of blasting a volatile chemical cocktail thousands of feet below the Earth’s surface-has been thoroughly demonized by rural landowners, environmentalists, and a persuasive documentarian or two. But practically nobody outside of the oil industry has even heard of its ascednent alternative, called “matrix acidization.”
Oil companies are fixing to drop huge amounts of hydrochloric or hydroflouric acid on subterranean rock formations, in order to dissolve the rock and clear the way for extraction.
“There’s a lot of discussion around the Monterey Shale that it doesn’t require fracking, that acidizing will be enough to open up the rock. I think it could be a way to unlock the Monterey,” Chris Faulkner, chief executive officer of Breitling Oil and Gas, recently told the San Francisco Chronicle.
But acidizing isn’t new. The practice has long been used to make old wells more efficient; oil companies flush acid through the pipes to clear out the gunk that gets stuck in the pipes; it’s like Drano for Big Oil; a big acid bath colon cleanse. As an official Haliburton document on acidization notes, “If a well is plugged with an acid soluble scale such as carbonate scale, then acid can be very effective at removing the scale and restoring production.”
Haliburton also explains that acidization can be used to amp up production. Matrix acidization can yield “a significant improvement in production over ‘non-damaged’ conditions,” according to the dcoument. “As such, carbonate acidizing can be truly thought of as stimulation.” In other words, using hydroflouric acid even when a well’s not jammed up can increase its productivity.
Of course, there are great dangers that come with acidization, too. A recent Next Generation report by Robert Collier points out that hydroflouric acid “is also one of the most dangerous of all fluids used in oil production-and indeed in any industrial process. It is used in many oil refineries nationwide to help turn oil into gasoline and other products; while accidents are rare, they can be fatal.”
Collier notes that righ now, “large amounts of HF (precise volumes are an industry secret) are routinely trucked around California and mixed at oilfields. Critics call it a disaster waiting to happen.” He also notes that there have been a handful of accidents already, but no major disasters. Nothing like the tragedy last year in South Korea, where a leak in a hydroflouric acid container claimed the lives of five oil workers and sent two thousand people to the hospital. It also dessicated crops and left a path of destruction in the area; the government was forced to declared the region a disaster zone.
A single Google search for ‘hydroflouric acid’ brings up dozens of images of gruesome acid burns, and will ensure you never forget how dangerous the stuff is-it will also remind you that it’s the stuff that Walter White is after in Breaking Bad, because it’s used to make meth, too.
And yet, as of now, acidization is almost entirely unregulated. As with fracking, oil and gas companies currently aren’t required to disclose exactly how and where they’re engaging in acidization. The industry has been hoping to keep a lid on the practice, keenly aware of the vitriol fracking has attracted from environmentalists, activists, and appreciaters of non-flammable water everywhere. As a result, no one is really sure which acids oil companies are using where, or how each company is actually engaging in acidization.
California state legislators hope to put an end to the secrecy, however. A group of lawmakers working on a bill to make fracking more transparent is aiming to include rules for acidization, too.
“We have to get this right,” state Senator Fran Pavley, the head of the senate committee on natural resources and water, said at a hearing in Sacramento, according to Reuters. “Regulators must also keep pace with changing technologies.”
Especially when that new technology involves dumping untold amounts of acid on California. Acidization may have been used to improve well output in the past, but it’s never, to my knowldedge, been used to dissolve enough earth to open up a 15 billion-barrel oil reserve. Oil companies are about to drop a hell of a lot of acid.
By Brian Merchant 8 hours ago
Special thanks to Richard Charter