HOUSTON — Energy companies are taking their fracking operations from the land to the sea — to deep waters off the United States, South American and African coasts.
Cracking rocks underground to allow oil and gas to flow more freely into wells has grown into one of the most lucrative industry practices of the past century. The technique is also widely condemned as a source of groundwater contamination. The question now is how will that debate play out as the equipment moves out into the deep blue. For now, caution from all sides is the operative word.
“It’s the most challenging, harshest environment that we’ll be working in,” said Ron Dusterhoft, an engineer at Halliburton Co., the world’s largest fracker. “You just can’t afford hiccups.”
Offshore fracking is a part of a broader industrywide strategy to make billion-dollar deep-sea developments pay off. The practice has been around for two decades yet only in the past few years have advances in technology and vast offshore discoveries combined to make large scale fracking feasible.
While fracking also is moving off the coasts of Brazil and Africa, the big play is in the Gulf of Mexico, where wells more than 100 miles from the coastline must traverse water depths of a mile or more and can cost almost $100 million to drill.
Those expensive drilling projects are a boon for oil service providers such as Halliburton, Baker Hughes and Superior Energy Services. Schlumberger Ltd., which provides offshore fracking gear for markets outside the U.S. Gulf, also stands to get new work. And producers such as Chevron Corp., Royal Dutch Shell and BP may reap billions of dollars in extra revenue over time as fracking helps boost crude output.
Fracking in the Gulf of Mexico is expected to grow by more than 10 percent over a two-year period ending in 2015, said Douglas Stephens, president of pressure pumping at Baker Hughes, which operates about a third of the world’s offshore fracking fleet.
At sea, water flowing back from fracked wells is cleaned up on large platforms near the well by filtering out oil and other contaminants. The treated wastewater is then dumped overboard into the vast expanse of the Gulf of Mexico, where dilution renders it harmless, according to companies and regulators.
The treatment process is mandated under Environmental Protection Agency regulations. In California, where producers are fracking offshore in existing fields, critics led by the Environmental Defense Center have asked federal regulators to ban the practice off the West Coast until more is known about its effects.
Offshore fracking in the Gulf of Mexico also should be subject to a detailed environmental review, said Tony Knap, director of the Geochemical and Environmental Research Group at Texas A&M University. The concern is that chemicals used in the fracking fluid that’s released in the Gulf could harm sea life or upset the ecosystem, said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
“One of the key problems is nobody has really looked at the environmental impacts of offshore fracking, and we find that incredibly concerning,” she said in an interview. “Nobody knows what they've been discharging and in what amounts.”
One of the key problems is nobody has really looked at the environmental impacts of offshore fracking, and we find that incredibly concerning.”
Center for Biological Diversity