Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) faces an uncertain future: the regulatory landscape is already shifting, and we are likely to see more – not less – scrutiny of companies and processes. Companies that are not fully prepared for more shifts, from what data is required to how to report it, will certainly suffer.
To fully capitalise on the new revenue opportunities, including fracking, oil and gas companies must intelligently balance environmental concerns against business priorities. And vital to achieving this balance is assiduous testing and data management that is supported by a scalable platform. A laboratory information management system (LIMS) is such a system, and it is capable of managing varied and voluminous data, ranging from fracking water samples to instrument calibration information. The LIMS is the centralised repository for all data, the primary engine that consolidates and delivers operational and compliance information where, when and to whom it is needed.
Today, many oil and gas companies rely on sophisticated informatics solutions to collect, manage and report on sample data from across production platforms and beyond. In fracking, effective data management is not confined to the laboratory alone. In fact, the lab is an extension of the field, and with today’s comprehensive LIMS that incorporate mobile technologies, field workers can support a remote sample collection capability that feeds data from all activities to a centralised LIMS in real time. Once there, technicians can perform further analysis and generate comprehensive reports for management.
Figure 1. For soil contamination and emissions monitoring, data visualization capabilities allow users outside the lab to monitor field collection sites quickly and easily within the LIMS.
Fracking under scrutiny
That fracking is a source of energy independence is unquestioned. But the impacts to remote and well-populated areas from aggressive and invasive extraction techniques that use hundreds of chemicals, from ethylene glycol and methanol to formaldehyde, and millions of gallons of fresh water, are under increasing scrutiny. While fracking isn’t new, extraction this scale is, and many worry about real or perceived threats to the natural landscape, water table and even the stability of the surrounding ground structure.
In remote locations, where fragile habitats may be at risk, exploration companies must also be focused on successful reclamation after extraction activities are finished. This necessitates regular sampling of groundwater and soils for possible contamination caused by fracking.
Beyond environmental monitoring, data management is essential for running an efficient and profitable fracking operation. Even the monitoring of heavy drilling equipment, which is subject to caustic chemicals and erosive sands, for example, is critical to ensuring safe and efficient operations. Having a single piece of equipment offline for any period is costly, so maintenance schedules are closely watched, all within the LIMS. This provides a discipline for managing data that is on par with many of the most highly regulated industries worldwide.
Although the fracking industry in the US has matured rapidly in recent years, the regulatory framework is still evolving. Many openly criticise the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for not having firmer guidelines for monitoring and reporting, but the sheer complexity of fracking has delayed more decisive action. Fracking operations impact groundwater, soil and the air, falling under the purview of the Toxic Substances and Control Act and the Clean Air Act, but not yet explicitly under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Facing oversight from multiple regulatory bodies, not to mention state-level oversight, makes it difficult for companies to adequately plan for future compliance.
Absent any definitive set of regulations, companies involved in fracking today require an extensible data collection and reporting platform that is built for today, but is agile enough for what the will face tomorrow. A LIMS can offer this. The same platform that is now used at the world’s largest gas to liquids facility in Qatar (a Shell operation) is more than capable of handling the requirements of fracking operations.
While the benefits of a LIMS in fracking are evident at the regulatory compliance level alone, the opportunity for data-driven business transformation cannot be understated. As organisations such as American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) develop standards, which in ASTM’s case are aimed at standardising data; ensuring proper data collection during fracking; and making data exchanges by state agencies, industry and other stakeholders more efficient, – the volume of valuable data available will increase exponentially.
Figure 2. For soil contamination and emissions monitoring, data visualization capabilities allow users outside the lab to monitor field collection sites quickly and easily within the LIMS.
Fracking is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Studies have shown more than 750 different chemicals and components may be used in the hydraulic fracturing process. This suggests another benefit of assiduous monitoring: maximising efficiency and profit potential. With a LIMS, monitoring the composition of fracking fluids is not guesswork, and ongoing refinements are possible with laboratory precision. An additive used once to thicken the water into a gel may become a best practice for opening fractures and carrying proppants deep into the rock unit at similar sites. Expensive or harmful chemicals may be substituted with cheaper, less toxic materials after companies conduct data comparison studies between equivalent sites.
The common denominator is data, and it enables oil and gas companies to maximise gains and minimise environmental risk during the fracking process. Seen this way, it is clear how a modern analytical lab, supported by a world-class LIMS such as Thermo Scientific SampleManager, is central to an efficient, profitable fracking operation. Having full visibility into all aspects of fracking operations empowers decision-makers to make meaningful choices that have a positive impact on bottom- and top-line revenue. So whether an oil and gas laboratory starts with the goal of streamlining compliance or it is motivated by the potential to improve efficiency and quality over time, the end result with LIMS is the same - an integrated data management system of record, pre-configured for the industry, that is designed for evolving compliance requirements and ongoing performance gains.
Written by Colin Thurston, Informatics Project Director, Thermo Fisher Scientific. Edited by Callum O'Reilly
Read the article online at: https://www.hydrocarbonengineering.com/special-reports/13062014/fracking_compliance_special_report_043/