Shale gas in Europe – it’s a revolution that does not seem to be happening. Even in countries like Poland and the UK, where governments are pushing it. However, European shale gas may get a second chance – if US company eCorp is to be believed. CEO John Thrash of eCorp says his company can frack without using any water, with no chemicals and much cheaper. The French government first embraced eCorp’s technology, only to ignore it later, “for political reasons”. Thrash is now taking his mission to other countries in Europe, and the world.
Would the Lancashire County Council’s planning committee have made a different decision if Cuadrilla Resources had offered a plan to frack in an entirely different way – without harm to the environment? The Council rejected two applications from the company to start exploratory fracking – the first such applications made in the UK in four years time – killing for the moment the hopes of the UK government to start a fracking revolution in the country.
The Lancashire Council rejected Cuadrilla’s applications on the grounds of noise and traffic concerns. Yet surely the risks of water pollution and earthquakes and the use of chemicals in the fracking process entered the committee members’ minds. This would not have been the case if Cuadrilla had planned not to use water to stimulate shale gas production, but pure propane instead. Pure propane stimulation is a new technology that has been developed by the Houston-based company eCORP through its affiliate eCORP Stimulation Technology (ecorpStim)– and it uses no water at all, and no chemicals, so there is no risk of any pollution nor of earthquakes.
If what ecorpStim claims is accurate, its method could transform the entire European, in fact, global debate about fracking. The US shale revolution could finally be exported to Europe, and the rest of the world.
The story of ecorpStim first became big news in April of this year, when newspaper Le Figaro revealed that the French government had ignored a 2014 report from its own Ministry of Economic Affairs holding out the promise of a French shale gas revolution based on ecorpStim’s technology.
This report, dating from June 2014, had been drawn up by then-Minister of the Economy Arnaud Montebourg and was based on “20 months of research seeking environmentally friendly shale gas”. Supported by prestigious French institutes, including the French Petroleum Institute (IFP), the French Monitoring Agency of Economic Conditions (OFCE), and the Council on Economy, Industry, Energy and Technology (CGEIET), which had contributed to the project, Montebourg’s report contained a dramatic plea for France to develop its shale resources. It also promised a method to do so safely, cheaply, and without the use of water or chemicals.
However, the French government decided not to act on Montebourg’s recommendations. As it turned out, Montebourg proved unable to get his fracking plan approved by his colleague, the French Minister of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy, Ségolène Royal, a prominent member of the Socialist Party. Partly for this reason, Montebourg resigned his post. When Le Figaro published its story on 6 April, Royal reacted promptly on Twitter: “Rien à cacher. Les gaz de schiste ne sont plus d’actualité. Faisons la #transition énergétique” (“Nothing to hide. Shale gas extraction is no longer relevant. Let’s do energy transition”). Fracking has been banned by law in France since 2011.
A new light
But is shale gas no longer relevant? That is not how the inventors of the new technology, ecorpStim, look at it. In a telephone interview with Energy Post, eCORP’s founder and CEO John Thrash, based in Houston, Texas, admits that he was “terribly disappointed” with the decision of the French government not to proceed with the fracking project, but, he adds, “we are now offering our technology to the rest of the world.”
EcorpStim worked closely with the French authorities for almost two years. As Montebourg explains in his report, the Ministry carried out an in-depth study of the economic potential and environmental risks of different shale gas extraction methods, with the help of a great many experts. A group of French experts travelled to the US to view an experimental field test of ecorpStim’s technology, which is based on stimulation with propane rather than water.
Montebourg and his experts conclude that ecorpStim’s propane stimulation “makes it possible to look at shale gas in a new light”. Indeed, the Montebourg report explicitly rejects traditional fracking methods (“a practice we condemn for environmental reasons, because it requires large quantities of water and chemical additives”), but note that “It is now possible to explore for resources while totally respecting the environment and eliminating all forms of underground and surface pollution, through the use of propane gas stimulation”.
They also write that extraction of non-conventional hydrocarbons could generate revenues between €103 billion and €294 billion for France over a period of 30 years.
It is a prize the French government decided to forego. Thrash, although he invested many millions of dollars into the failed partnership, nevertheless sees a positive side to the French experience. “It has given us a very good foundation. The validation we received, the endorsement we got from the best French experts, is very valuable to us. We were ready to make this a French technology, but now this will not happen, we are in a better position to convince the rest of the world.”
Why did ecorpStim decide to partner with France in the first place? Thrash gives three reasons. One, because of the “superior geology” of the country. “If you want to do shale gas in Europe, France has the best potential”.
Second, France is meticulous about the environment. “We are similarly motivated philosophically as a business”, says Thrash. “It is a paradigm we should all embrace.”
Thirdly, Thrash notes that France has a great many top experts in this field. “The French Petroleum Institute is world-renowned. The French have astonishing human resources in reservoir engineering and stimulation technology. A lot of analytics used in shale development were invented in France or by French persons, such as the Rockeval (rock evaluation) standard.”
And there was yet another reason why it was expedient for the company to enter into a collaborative project, explains Thrash. “We are a development stage company. We have been proliferating patents only in the last year or so. To get a patent, you need more than just the idea. You need to prove that you are able to carry it out. You need operating protocols, etcetera. So the partnership allowed us to build the technology, test it. We filed most intellectual property claims in the second and third quarter of last year, in 102 countries.”
This is also the reason, says Thrash, why eCORP’s technology, despite its apparently huge advantages, is not in use yet in the world – because it is still very new.
Thrash has been active in the natural gas business in the US for over 30 years, in all parts of the value chain. eCORP, which was founded in 1982, was active in gas storage and pipelines and in 2006 was the largest acre holder in the huge Marcellus shale play. So Thrash witnessed the shale gas revolution in the US from close up – and did not always like what he saw. “Significant quantities of water and chemicals were used and the method was not even very efficient.”
So, he says, he started looking round for more environmentally friendly methods. He sold his stake in the Marcellus and bought stakes in plays in the UK, France and Switzerland. Around 2007 he came across a Canadian company called GasFrac, which had developed a new stimulation technology, based on propane. GasFrac’s method was to turn the propane into a gel, which still used a lot of chemicals. eCORP managed to develop a method based on pure propane.
This solved the problem of water and chemicals, but left another one: the risk of flammability. The company managed to overcome that in the first half of 2013, says Montebourg’s report. There is, in fact, nothing holding the pure propane stimulation back anymore, says Thrash.
The beauty of the technology, he notes, is that propane is a naturally occurring reservoir fluid. It is always present to some degree in natural gas. In the existing fracking process, chemicals are used to make water behave more like a hydrocarbon. That is not necessary when you use propane. “Methane and propane mix, water and oil do not”, says Thrash. This means the propane that is used is recovered in the process and can even be used again.
A major problem with water-based hydraulic fracturing is that some 80% of the water cannot be recovered. The 20% that is recovered is polluted and has to be treated – and then disposed of again. So a lot of water is used – and wasted. And it is generally accepted that the disposal of return water in underground formations is what’s causing earthquakes, notes Thrash.
In addition to being perfectly environmentally friendly, the propane technology is also much more efficient than water-based fracking, says Thrash. “The cost per well may be 30-40% higher, but since the process is much more efficient, we can drill to three to four times fewer wells to get the same result.”
Until recently, cost was not a major concern to shale producers, says Thrash. “They were satisfied with the method they used. If it’s not broken, why fix it, was their attitude. But since oil prices have come down, tremendous pressure is put on producers to reduce their costs.”
As a result, says Thrash, he is now “having conversations” with many independent gas producers in the US about the propane technology.
Conquer the world
But that’s not at all. eCORP is also speaking with other European governments, including in the UK (where eCORP is developing acreage in the Midlands together with Total), and in countries as wide apart as China, Latin America, Morocco, Algeria, Saud Arabia, Canada and Mexico. He does not want to mention any names, but “all these conversations are proceeding and we expect to announce a series of deals in the coming quarters”.
Thus, Thrash still expects to conquer the world with its shale technology, but not from France. Although even a French Revolution can’t be entirely ruled out.
Florence Maisel, Managing Partner of the French division of public affairs company Interel, who has eCORP as client but is so enthusiastic about the project that she also joined the company as Director External Relations EMEA, notes that a change in government in France could revive the project. Former French President and future presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy has said he wants to do shale gas, notes Maisel. “It has become a politicized issue in France”, she says. And that means there is still a chance for which she is prepared to fight. “This is not a dossier for me”, she adds. “It’s a cause.”
Thrash feels the same. He is convinced Europe needs a shale gas revolution – not instead of an energy transition, as Ségolène Royal put it, but to finance the transition. “This was Montebourg’s idea”, he says, “to use the revenues from shale gas as a route to the energy transition. Everyone knows you cannot instantly go to zero fossil fuels. That would impose impossible financial burdens. Our plan holds the greatest promise of funding the energy transition to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars.”
Joint Research Council on pure propane stimulation
In 2013, the Joint Research Council (JRC) of the European Commission issued a Technical Report presenting “An overview of hydraulic fracturing and other formation stimulation technologies for shale gas production”. This was one of the reports used as the scientific basis for a Communication issued in 2014 by the Commission, which discusses environmental risks of high-volume hydraulic fracturing.
In the JRC’s technical report, edited by Luca Gandossi, the pure propane stimulation technology of eCORP is discussed fairly favourably. Asked whether he believes this is indeed a promising technology that could transform the shale gas sector, Gandossi replies that “I don’t have the answer. I cannot say much more than what I wrote in my 2013 report, and the information I used there was mainly from the ecorpStim‘s website and commercial brochures. It is hard to find anything else in the published literature, especially about a technology (pure propane) which is being commercially developed as we speak.”
Gandossi notes that as part of the European Science and Technology Network on Unconventional Hydrocarbon Extraction, managed by JRC on behalf of several Commission services (https://ec.europa.eu/jrc/en/uh-network), researchers are now “further deepening and updating” their research into existing and new fracking technologies. This work has started in February and the first results should be in by December.
The Chairman of one of the two working groups in this project is Francois Kalaydjian, who is Director of the Sustainable Development Technologies Division at IFP Energies Nouvelles, the “New Energy” division of the French Petroleum Institute – one of the organisations that backed the original Montebourg report.