GE Commits Billions to Focus on Greening Natural Gas

This orbital view of America taken by a NASA satellite in 2012 went viral across the Internet and revealed that a new city, lights blazing, had sprung up in the darkness of the northern plains. Dwarfing Minneapolis to the right, this glowing cluster actually showed desperate attempts to flare off unwanted natural gas, the byproduct of successfully fracking for oil across the Bakken Formation in North Dakota.

Hundreds of flares were setting off a "Houston, we have a problem" moment. Now flash forward two years later and listen to North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple say, "We're flaring a tremendous amount of gas right now," to the audience at the Bloomberg Energy 2020 summit in Washington, D.C. "Everybody feels it is a huge waste, to say nothing of the environmental impact." At this point, gas output has surpassed 1 billion cubic feet a day in the state. Of that, about 300 million is flared into the atmosphere.

Seeing a profitable opportunity

Even though the oil industry will spend $6 billion on natural gas gathering and processing infrastructure this year, Dalrymple lamented to Fuelfix, "We keep finding more oil and gas, so for the time being, we're really not gaining on the problem."

At the same time in Boston, Ceres, an investor nonprofit monitoring sustainability, released a report that showed that fracking competes for water in some of the driest regions of the US, particularly in the Eagle Ford Shale in Texas. This corroborated a University of Texas study, funded by the oil and gas industry, that predicted fracking in the Eagle Ford would use 35,000 acre-feet of water annually. Seeing a profitable opportunity, it was no surprise when CEO Jeffery Immelt announced at the same Energy Summit that GE was investing $10 billion to primarily green the natural gas industry. Immelt unveiled two new research partnerships aimed at reducing the use of water for fracking and eliminating excess natural gas see his 15 minute talk.

Powering remote drilling rigs

In a collaboration between Ferus Natural Gas Fuels and GE, previously flared natural gas is captured while natural gas liquids, such as propane and butane, are removed and sold. The remaining methane is compressed using GE Oil & Gas' CNG In-A-Box system and loaded onto Ferus's specially designed compressed natural gas (CNG) storage trailers to be transported to the final point of use. There, the CNG can be used to power field operations, replacing higher-cost and higher-emissions diesel fuel. The first commercial application of the Last Mile Fueling system is already at work with Statoil at a site in North Dakota. A company demo explains.

Replacing diesel in the state with natural gas would soak up about 40 percent of the 300 million cubic feet of daily gas currently being flared, Stewart Wilson, associate of business development at Ferus told Bloomberg. Statoil, GE and Ferus have launched a test to see if the same CNG system can power the hydraulic fracturing equipment it contracts from Halliburton to pump water, sand, and chemicals underground to unlock hydrocarbons from the dense subterranean rock. Eventually, the systems could replace diesel in oilfield equipment well beyond North Dakota, even in the gas-rich Marcellus Shale. The techniques also could be deployed in some nations where the natural gas could help residents cook and heat their homes.

Replacing fracking water

To save water at fracking sites, an R&D project with Norway's Statoil aims to replace the water that's injected into rock formations during fracking with a substance the engineers would rather see used for the job: carbon dioxide. The goal for GE and Statoil is to evaluate whether a system can be designed to capture CO2 produced from well emissions, reuse the CO2 to fracture rock formation, and then capture it again for re-use on the next well. Capturing and injecting CO2 into oil and gas wells isn't new - it's one of several "enhanced oil recovery" methods used today. It's even been blamed for some small-scale earthquakes in Texas. But it's mainly limited to shallower wells, and presents some technical challenges in how it's blended with different gases and small amounts of water for use in deep rock formations. Although GE's new proposal isn't exactly "carbon sequestration," or storing CO2 emissions underground, since it's reusing captured carbon, it does reduce the release of CO2 into the atmosphere, with the added bonus of reusing it.

Will this help to retard methane leaks throughout the industry?

Images: Earth from space, NASA; flared gas, Tim Evanson