News Column

Using Acids to Unlock Shale Oil OK, Regulator Says

June 19, 2013
shale oil

The state's top oil regulator told lawmakers Tuesday that Californians have nothing to fear about an oil production stimulation practice known as acidization that is expected to become much more broadly used as producers seek to extract billions of barrels of previously unrecoverable shale oil reserves.

"Acidization has been well enough studied. There's no evidence that we have a problem to solve," state Department of Conservation Director Mark Nechodom told a Senate committee Tuesday.

His comments came after state Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, chairwoman of the Natural Resources and Water Committee, announced that she intends to broaden her legislation aiming to regulate hydraulic fracturing so that it also addresses other industry practices designed to stimulate oil production.

As with hydraulic fracturing, the purpose of acidization is to create openings in subsurface rock formations that will allow the embedded oil to be released.

"I'm concerned that the focus on fracking isn't sufficient to protect public health and safety," Pavley said. "Fracking may not be as central to the development of the Monterey Shale as acidization."

The Monterey formation underlies 1,750 square miles in Central and Southern California, including much of Ventura County. The potential for recovering its oil reserves has triggered speculation about a potential oil boom in the state and kicked off a frenzy of leasing activity for oil rights.

Pavley called for the informational hearing after learning of reports from industry experts that suggest methods other than fracking, which has been broadly used in Eastern states to stimulate recovery of natural gas from shale formations, will prove to be more effective in California because of its different geology.

A background paper written by the committee staff notes that former Venoco Inc. CEO Tim Marquez told an oil industry journal that he believes the company's primary approach to tapping into Monterey Shale reserves "will be big acid jobs."

Nechodom and State Oil and Gas Supervisor Tim Kustic testified that there is no risk of hydrofluoric acid injected into wells migrating into groundwater aquifers because it will be chemically altered in its reactions with the rock that surrounds the wellbore.

They described hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as "fracking," as the most aggressive of the production-stimulation techniques because it is designed to create fractures hundreds of feet from the wellbore.

Two environmental advocates told the committee that the oil industry, in its efforts to find ways to unlock Monterey Shale reserves, is experimenting with large volumes of acids in higher concentrations than have been used before.

Briana Mordick, a petroleum geologist who works as a staff scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said an experiment in Kern County's Elk Hills oil field that used "tens of thousands of gallons of hydrofluoric acid" resulted in a ninefold increase in oil production from the well. Because of that, she testified, the practice is now widely used.

Environmental consultant Robert Collier, who attended a petroleum conference in Bakersfield at the end of May, said geologists talked about the use of acid producing potential breakthroughs.

"Everybody was trying to experiment with the maximum amount of volume and concentration without corroding the well casing," he said. "The oil companies are at the edge of what is known. Everybody has their own special sauce, and they're all pushing the boundaries."

Paul Deiro, representing the Western States Petroleum Association, acknowledged that oil companies are working independently to find a breakthrough.

"Companies are highly competitive and they don't want to share with their competitors," he said. "All the techniques are on the table."

But he said no one in the industry is going to take excessive risks.

"We use acid because it's effective, and we handle it safely," he said. "They are not going to put their reputation on the line by exploring techniques that put a well at risk."

Nechodom, who said his department would provide the committee with a comprehensive list of production-stimulation practices within a few weeks, said the primary focus of oil-well regulators is to ensure the mechanical integrity of wells.

The use of highly pressurized fluids in fracking raises concerns about well integrity, he said.

"If any other form of production stimulation should give us reason to be concerned for mechanical integrity, it warrants a harder look," he said.

Rock Zierman, CEO of the California Independent Petroleum Association, said the industry recognizes the need for regulations that provide the public with more information about fracking.

"We support disclosure of where this happening, when it's happening, the chemicals that are used, the volumes of water, the pre-notice of when it's going to take place. We're not afraid to have those put into regulation," he said. "We're very open to looking at acid fracking and possibly including it in legislation."

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(c)2013 Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.)

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Source: Copyright Ventura County Star (CA) 2013


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