Ian Picken

Tonight’s speaker, Mr Ian Picken, a retired geologist with 42 year experience at Rio Tinto spoke on the subject of Hydraulic Fracturing (FRACCING). His experience includes substantial contact with and general knowledge of many corporate activities, particularly with Rio Tinto Ltd and Rio Tinto Alcan (Comalco). Ian spent his last four years with Rio managing their Technical facility within the Technology Park at Latrobe University. Hydraulic Fracturing, or ‘Fraccing’, is a well established, tightly regulated technology. It has been used safely for to enhance oil and gas production for 65 years in more than 2 million wells. Fraccing increases the flow of oil and gas from wells and allows commercialisation of tight (low permeability) reservoirs in which oil and gas do not flow easily. Fraccing is now used in about 90% of new US gas wells, and even water bores are sometimes fracced to increase water production. A hydraulic fracture is formed by pumping ‘Fraccing Fluids’ into the well bore at a rate sufficient to increase the pressure down the hole at the target zone to exceed the fracture gradient of the rock. The location of one or more fractures along the length of the borehole is strictly controlled by various methods that seal off holes in the side of the well bore. Fraccing is performed in cased well bores, the zones to be fractured are accessed by perforating the casing at these locations. The high pressure generates small cracks in the rock, the fraccing fluid enters these small cracks extending the cracking. Fracture width is maintained by introducing to the fraccing fluids ‘proppants’ (special small spherical grains of sand) which prevent the fractures closing when the injecting is stopped. The ‘propped’ fracture allows the formation fluids including gas, oil, water (fresh and salt), fraccing fluids, etc. to flow to the well surface. The injected fluid is typically more than 99% water and sand plus a very small amount of chemicals which are needed to reduce friction, remove bacteria, dissolve some minerals and enhance the fluid’s ability to transport sand. Chemicals used in Australian fraccing operations include sodium hydrochlorite and hydrochloric acid (both used in swimming pools), cellulose (used to make paper), acetic acid (the active part of vinegar) and small amounts of disinfectants. While the proppants remain behind in the rock formation, most of the injected fluid flows back to the surface. All fluids are recovered and isolated in sealed storage areas designed to prevent leakage, such as specially designed and constructed dams or above ground holding tanks. Safety has been confirmed by academic and government studies in the US, the UK and New Zealand which show that fraccing is safe. Given the nature and dilution of chemicals used in Australian operations, fraccing does not impair water quality. Indeed even in the US where stronger chemicals are used, studies have repeatedly shown that fraccing does not impair water quality. DOWNSIDE: The oil and gas industry is a significant source of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) which contribute to ground level ozone (smog). The largest air emissions in the natural gas industry occur as well that have been fractured are being prepared for production. During the stage of well completion known as ‘Flowback’ fraccing fluids, water and gas come to the surface at high velocity and volume. This mixture contains high volumes of VOCs and methane along with air toxins such as benzene, ethylbenzene and n-hexane. BTEX contains benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene, these chemicals are commonly contained in petroleum based products and are naturally occurring in the coal seam. Queensland Law strictly prohibits the use of BTEX chemicals in fraccing fluids. Also there appears to be a lack of adequate government oversight and control of gas mining in Australia. e.g.The NSW government recently extended for six years vast gas exploration licences held by Leichart Resources, a $100.00 company run by a Brisbane lawyer in his spare time. These licences cover more than 5,500 square kilometres of NSW. In a detailed submission to the NSW government, the Southern Highlands Coal Action group raised concerns about Leichart, its financial position and also the financial position of Planet Gas, which had been contracted to conduct the drilling.