Andreas Späth

Fracking on acid

2013-06-24 12:00

Andreas Späth

Fracking may not be the only environmentally dubious technology the Karoo will be exposed to if the much talked about rush for shale gas in South Africa ever becomes a reality.

Activists in California have recently raised concerns about a related method used to enhance oil and gas extraction from underground wells called the "acid job". Now before all of you fossil fuel fans out there get your knickers in a knot about greenies like me using misleading terminology, let me point out that just like "fracking", the term "acid job" was coined by the industry itself and is therefore fair game.

So acid jobs it is. You've got to hand it to these people - they've got an uncanny knack of describing exactly what they are doing to the planet. More sanitised versions like "matrix acidizing" and "acid stimulation" are way too obscurantist.

An acid job involves injecting thousands of litres of acid into an oil or gas well to dissolve away part of the rock in the underground reservoir, enlarge pore spaces, increase permeability and enhance the flow of oil or gas. It may be used to initiate production in a new well or improve it in an established one to squeeze the last dregs of hydrocarbony goodness out of the ground.

The acid injection happens either at low or at high pressure. The latter version (also called "fracture acidizing") is literally fracking on acid.

The acids used most commonly are hydrochloric acid (HCl) and hydrofluoric acid (HF). Nasty customers - I've worked extensively with both in geochemical labs, where they're carefully handled with protective gear from lab-coats and gloves to safety goggles and air extraction cabinets. Obviously their potency depends on their degree of dilution, but if they're injected into the ground to etch away rock, you can be sure that they are being used at relatively high concentrations.

The question is what happens if these corrosive materials leak from a well and what potential impacts that could have on groundwater and ecosystems in the vicinity?

It turns out that acid jobs are used much more frequently than common garden-variety fracking in California, where oil is being extracted from shale. But acid jobs are also employed in gas wells and may therefore also be on the cards for the Karoo one day.

Acid jobs are not new. Like conventional fracking they've been used for decades. The companies claim that if well construction is done properly there is little risk of any acid migrating away from the well site. But that's a pretty big if.

Since the technology hasn't been subject to nearly enough independent oversight, nobody really knows what the impacts are now or what they will be in the long run.

Just like the world's largest banks have become "too big to fail" and are literally guaranteed government bailouts whenever they're in trouble, regardless of how unethically they've behaved, the oil and gas industry - the most profitable companies on the planet - have become too big to regulate.

With tens of thousands of wells in the ground, their operations can't be effectively regulated or monitored, even by the most well-resourced governments. And when government agencies do raise concerns, the industry wields its considerable political influence to make its troubles disappear.

A case in point: last week the US government asked its own Environmental Protection Agency to drop investigations into 2011 findings that fracking fluids had likely caused groundwater contamination in Wyoming. The reason?  "Industry backlash" had called the initial study into question.

The oil and gas companies would prefer us to know as little as possible about what they get up to under our feet, leaving any detrimental consequences for future generations to deal with. Which is exactly why we should be asking questions about supposedly save industry practices like acid jobs today.

- Andreas freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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