Low-carbon hydraulic fracturing is gaining traction across the US.
Typically, the process of fracturing shale rock formations under high pressure by blasting water, sand and chemicals deep underground is an inherently dirty business. Once a typical shale well is drilled, a frack fleet descends on the site, hooking up a series of giant diesel pumps that can run uninterrupted overnight. At any one time, there can be upwards of 220 such fleets working across the US.
In response to the attention of environmentalists and investors scrutinizing its ESG—or environmental, social and governance—credentials, the industry is increasingly touting electric or low-diesel machines that are replacing conventional diesel fleets. The number of US frack fleets running on electricity or a mixture of diesel and natural gas skyrocketed to more than 100 in September—comprising about 45 percent of the country’s working fleets.
That’s more than three times the 30 or so in use before COVID-19, according to Joseph Triepke, partner at energy research firm Lium LLC. He estimates e-fracking or dual fracking fleets will make up about 55 percent of active fleets next year.
The new systems, which started to gain traction in 2019, not only offer lower emissions but also potential fuel-cost savings for operators. But critics say whatever emissions are being eliminated during the fracking process itself are still dwarfed by those created when the oil and gas that’s extracted ends up being burned.
The debate over the issue—which the industry has dubbed “ESG-friendly” fracking—is just one example of how fossil fuel companies are trying to cut emissions while maintaining production. That posture that may be increasingly difficult to maintain as more investors push energy companies to lower their footprints, including those hard-to-quantify scope 3 emissions, or those released by a company’s supply chain and customers.
The push for more action is gaining speed: Earlier this year, Royal Dutch Shell Plc was ordered to reduce carbon emissions by 45 percent by 2030 by a Dutch court, while ESG-minded investor Engine No. 1 won a boardroom battle with Exxon Mobil Corporation.
Still, advocates of e-frack technology say every little bit counts, especially as talk of the energy transition moves quickly in the industry. E-fracking lets companies cut some emissions without trimming actual output. Customers like it too, for both the promised cost savings and how green it sounds. For those frackers not making the switch, it’s often because they still have a glut of diesel-powered machinery to use.
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