The vast majority of fracking sites in America are powered by emissions-spewing, noisy diesel engines. Which is why Ron Hyden, who’s seen a lot during his four decades in the oil patch, is eager to show off something new: a fracking machine that uses gravity and electricity generated from solar panels to send sand more quietly into a labyrinth of tubes before ultimately being shot underground to prop open tiny cracks in gas- or oil-bearing rock. The irony of gravity and solar panels being used to help capture fossil fuels isn’t lost on Hyden. “You would’ve never thought we’d give a flip about this,” says Hyden in a Texas twang as he gazes at the solar panels atop his new contraption. But, “we’re big into it.”
The “we” is almost as surprising. Hyden works for Halliburton (HAL), remembered by many for having done the cement job on the BP Macondo deepwater well prior to its 2010 blowout. The $25 billion oil-field giant is the world leader in providing services to companies involved in hydraulic fracturing—the process of breaking up shale by injecting high-pressure sand and chemically infused water to release hydrocarbons.
Halliburton calls its two-year-old solar-powered invention the SandCastle. It has rolled out dozens of SandCastles in the U.S. By replacing diesel engines to move sand from the trailers, Halliburton estimates the devices have saved 950,000 gallons of diesel and reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 20 million pounds in the first nine months of 2012.
Stung by environmental criticism, the petroleum industry is trying to clean up its act. Halliburton and the other three largest oil-field service providers spent $2.04 billion on research and development in 2011, up 32 percent from two years earlier. Some of that went to finding ways to make fracking more eco-friendly. Other green-leaning players include Chesapeake Energy (CHK) and General Electric (GE), as well as oil-patch interlopers such as Verenium (VRNM), a biotech concern, and Ecologix Environmental Systems, which makes wastewater-treatment systems.
Beyond changing the public’s perception of fracking, the companies hope to get a bigger payday by providing more green-friendly services. Cleaning up wastewater from fracked and conventional wells, for example, already is an $18 billion annual business, says Houston-based PacWest Consulting Partners. The oil-field industry is also hoping its green efforts will help soften calls for regulation.
While fracking has vaulted the U.S. ahead of Russia as the world’s leading natural gas producer, its success has generated controversy. A single fracked well can consume up to 6 million gallons of water—a threat, critics say, to local water supplies. Chemical-laden wastewater from fracking sites has been linked to pollution of streams and rivers. The Environmental Protection Agency has already promulgated rules aimed at reducing fracking emissions and has been asked by some states to consider whether fracking fluids should be regulated as a hazardous waste, and several states have moved to regulate the process.
Research has centered on two fronts: curbing air pollution, the aim of Halliburton’s SandCastles, and the bigger challenge of eliminating toxic chemicals. Ecologix is peddling technology that can recycle fracking wastewater by using air bubbles to separate out polluting solids, forming them into a sludge blanket that can be scooped up. Verenium is marketing nontoxic enzymes aimed at reducing a caustic chemical, ammonium persulfate—a standard ingredient in hair bleach—used during fracking. GE has come up with the Mobile Evaporator, a boiler-on-wheels the size of a semi that can be towed from well to well and cleans about 50 gallons of water per minute by boiling it to separate out contaminants. The cleaned water can be reused or fed into waterways. Chesapeake Energy has developed an in-house initiative called Green Frac, which it says has eliminated 25 percent of the additives used in fracking fluids in most of its shale wells.
Halliburton is promoting CleanStim, a fracking fluid with additives made, it says, almost entirely of enzymes from fruit and vegetable compounds. While the delivery method “doesn’t quite call for the downhole delivery of fruits and vegetables, it does rely on some of the same acids and enzymes present in those items,” Halliburton states on its website. The company won’t disclose the new ingredients, so far used in 23 wells, calling them proprietary. How convinced is Halliburton of the elixir’s safety? In front of hundreds of oil and gas executives in San Antonio for the Society of Petroleum Engineers annual conference in October, CEO David Lesar took a swig of CleanStim from a small jar. “There’s not one petroleum product in it,” he said. But, he added, “It doesn’t taste very good.”