Technology for a Saudi fracking boom moves closer to reality

The key to an energy boom is simple: Build a technology to get at the oil and gas that geologists already know is trapped in various subterranean, or subsea, formations.

The fracking boom in the U.S. is the obvious example. Extracting seabed methane hydrate is another huge bet—energy-starved Japan has made that.

Saudi Arabia could be next to use new technology to get at currently trapped gigantic reserves of oil and gas. A small pilot project about to get under way is the energy market equivalent of a moonshot, but it could allow a Saudi fracking boom to move one step closer to reality.

Workers at an oil facility near Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Hasan Jamali | AP
Workers at an oil facility near Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

All over the world, there are naturally fractured oil and gas reservoirs called carbonate formations, and no region has as much oil and gas trapped in carbonate formations as the Middle East. Carbonates are areas of sedimentary rock—limestone, for instance—that contain many natural cracks inside them.

Carbonate formations are estimated to hold 60 percent of the world's oil and 40 percent of the world's gas reserves. In the Middle East, roughly 70 percent of oil and 90 percent of gas reserves are trapped in the carbonate, according to oil services giant Schlumberger.

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In hydraulic fracturing, water and other chemicals are injected underground through a well bore to extract oil and gas. The norm today is to use hydraulic pressure on a huge volume of undirected fluid, mostly water, to actually crack open the earth.

Extracting oil and gas trapped in carbonate formations has been done through a process known as acidization. Water mixed with hydrochloric acid (it's about an 85 percent water solution) is pumped into a well bore and then branches out into the carbonate formation and etches patterns in the rock formation—think of an image of roots underneath a tree.

But the conventional approach has some big problems. The acid may not make contact with areas of the rock formation that need to be dissolved in order to access trapped oil and gas. In other cases, the acid might just wash along the inside of the well bore and not make it out into the rock formation itself.

Higher recovery rate, lower cost

Enter Fishbones, a Norway-based oil services start-up founded by Rune Freyer, a former Schlumberger executive who is considered a technical wizard in the oil business.

"Rune is a genius," said Richard Spears,v.p. at oil and gas services consultant Spears and Associates. "He has an incredible history of developing really cool technology for oil fields," he said.

Over the next six months, Fishbones plans to complete installations of its technology in Saudi Arabia for a client it can't disclose.

Oil services company Baker Hughes estimates Saudia Arabia is fifth in the world when it comes to recoverable gas reserves. Much of that is in carbonate formation. What Saudia Arabia doesn't have is a lot of water, which you need in fracking. Fishbones technology uses 95 percent less fluids and is designed for recovering oil and gas from carbonate formations.

Emma Richards, an oil and gas analyst with London-based BMI Research, said, "Saudi Arabia has an absolute dire need for gas. They want to shift their power more toward gas-based sources so they can free up oil for exports. One of the big areas they're targeting is gas reserves in carbonate formations, and they've been investing quite heavily over the last few years in R&D in different kinds of fracturing technologies."

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The problem with gas recovery in Saudi Arabia mirrors some of the shale-fracking problems of the U.S.: Production costs are high, while sales costs are low. So gaining access to a technology like Fishbones potentially means higher recovery rates and boosted production at a lower cost, which improves sales.

"This is an industry that, even though it's made up of gamblers, we aren't gamblers. We do something once and wait a year to see how it worked out. There will be some market for it. I just can't tell how big that might be." -Richard Spears, vice president, Spears and Associates

The Saudi project is the most intriguing, but Fishbones is at work on additional projects in Norway and Texas.

"These are reservoirs that are found all over the world," said Kevin Rice, the Houston-based North America region manager for Fishbones.

In Norway, it is working directly for Norway oil and gas giant Statoil, which is an investor in Fishbones.

"When it comes to the advancement of technology, Norway and the Middle East are right there," Spears said.

A 2014 pilot project in Texas—an installation in the Austin Chalk Formation—was backed by a group called the Joint Chalk Research group based in Denmark. The members of this group are BP, ConocoPhillips, the Danish North Sea Fund, Danish state-owned oil company Dong, Hess, Maersk, Royal Dutch Shell, Statoil and Total.

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In a Fishbones system, pipes containing needles are connected together as they're installed in horizontal or vertical well bores. When the solution of water and acid is pumped through this piping system, the pressure of the solution pushes the needles out into the rock formation underground. Those needles, which extend 40 feet in four directions from the main well bore, create tiny tunnels in the rock known as laterals.

After about five hours, the acid is done being pumped, and what's left underground is a large system of lateral tunnels—not to mention the main well bore—from which oil and gas can be pumped. It's for this reason the company is named Fishbones, since the end result of what it creates resembles the skeletal structure of a skinned fish, with the main well bore representing the spine and the lateral tunnels representing the fish's ribs. By pushing acid deep into carbonate formations while creating lateral tunnels, Fishbones ensures that acid comes into contact with more of the natural cracks within carbonate formations.

"Creating the laterals is something very new that we've introduced," Rice said. "It's a simpler process to get access into the formation. It's more accurate because you're controlling where it goes."

Fundamentally different yet promising

It's still too soon to say whether Fishbones succeeds in the market. Although it was founded eight years ago, the company is only now beginning to commercialize its technology, having installed two pilot systems in 2013 (in Indonesia) and 2014 (the Austin Chalk project). But some who study the fracking industry think Fishbones' approach shows promise.

"You can be hitting natural fracture systems that don't interact with the well bore. It's exactly the thing that we need in the extraction industry these days to strategically access resources," said John McLennan, an associate professor in the department of chemical engineering at the University of Utah. "You're focusing your efforts; you're not overusing your treatment fluids. Ultimately, something like this could be successful."

Spears said that in the U.S. and Canadian shale plays, the companies are using what amounts to "a very large sledgehammer" on a big frack job.

"You need to move a lot of rock and crack a lot of rocks open a thousand feet away from the well bore," he said. "The approach to these big frack jobs is not appropriate for big lush reservoirs that something a little more precise might address," Spears added.

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Fishbones' approach to the natural fractures and permeability in rock is attempting to do something fundamentally different than what the industry does, Spears said, and even though the oil and gas business is a high-risk one, these kinds of innovations can take a lot of time to be embraced, if ever.

"We're not saying forget hydraulic fracturing," Rice said. "But we have a specific niche in the market where we fit well. … And we have a unique way to tap into that market."

"This is an industry that, even though it's made up of gamblers, we aren't gamblers. We do something once and wait a year to see how it worked out," Spears said, adding, "There will be some market for it. I just can't tell how big that might be."

By Andrew Zaleski, special to CNBC.com