Tracers may ease public’s fracking fears

jmurawski@newsobserver.comMarch 3, 2013 

  • BaseTrace at a glance

    Founded: 2012

    Employees: 2 full-time employees and 3 part-time workers

    Business: Designed an additive that the company says would leave unique markers in several million gallons of fracking fluid. Each fracked well would get a teaspoon of the liquid. If the frack fluid were to leach into an aquifer and then migrate into a local drinking well, it could be traced back to the drilling operator who pumped the chemical mixture in quest of natural gas. The company estimates that it could charge as much as $40,000 per dose.

    Financing: Received $15,000 in grants from Duke University and a $20,000 investment from Cherokee, a Raleigh-based private equity firm.

— The future of fracking could include a patented, proprietary truth serum that would turn every backyard well into an oracle. Given its potential value in the courtroom and in public relations, a thimbleful of this magic potion could cost as much as a luxury automobile.

It’s still largely in the hypothetical stage, but if these “tracers” prove themselves in lab tests and at actual drill sites, they could resolve one of the most contentious aspects of fracking: whether deep injection of water and chemicals causes contamination of underground drinking water sources.

BaseTrace, a Morrisville startup formed last year by a group of 20-somethings, has developed what its founders believe is a fail-safe tracer with no dangerous side effects.

An eyedropper’s worth of their additive would leave unique markers in several million gallons of fracking fluid. If the frack fluid were to leach into an aquifer and then migrate into a local drinking well, it could be traced back to the drilling operator who pumped the chemical mixture in quest of natural gas.

The concept of fingerprinting frackers has caught the attention of the N.C. Mining & Energy Commission, which is reviewing regulations that would encourage or require the use of tracers in this state, although such products are still in development. The state board is writing environmental safeguards and public protections for fracking, which, for the time being, is prohibited in North Carolina by moratorium.

“The public is very anxious about this, and these tracers are protections we can provide to show that their groundwater has not suffered as a result of this industry,” said George Howard, a mining commission member. “We’re actively investigating this technology in our rule-making.”

Tracers hold out the prospect of refereeing the national shouting match over the dangers of fracking. BaseTrace’s research recently merited a mention by a New York Times blogger as an emerging idea to watch in 2013.

“The unique thing about this tracer is you can trace it back to the individual well,” said BaseTrace CEO Justine Chow. “Just knowing where it’s coming from and having a definitive answer is beneficial to both sides.”

Fracking refers to hydraulic fracturing, a method of splitting shale rock formations by pumping in water and chemicals to release natural gas trapped underground. There is no undisputed evidence that indicates that pumping fracking fluid several miles deep has contaminated ground water.

But the industry is dogged by complaints, allegations and lawsuits over its practices, and many doubt that fracking can be done safely. Fracking foes say that a single mishap underground could destroy regional drinking water sources for generations.

BaseTrace’s allure

David Kelly, a program associate with the Environmental Defense Fund in Raleigh, said tracers are appealing because they could detect malfunctions a mile underground, such as chemical seepage through a fault or through a defect in a well casing. However, Kelly said that while pinpointing the source of a subterranean fracking accident would establish legal liability, it wouldn’t fix the problem.

“It creates an incentive for companies to make sure it doesn’t happen,” Kelly said.

Part of BaseTrace’s allure is its composition: five graduate students or recent graduates from Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. Chow, 24, came up with the concept in 2011 while researching in preparation for an internship in Washington. The company has since netted $15,000 in grants from Duke University and a $20,000 investment from Cherokee, a private equity firm in Raleigh that specializes in Brownfield redevelopment.

Chow said other tracers on the market had huge drawbacks – they are either radioactive or require quantities measured by industrial drums. The amount of BaseTrace tracer needed per frack site is equivalent to a teaspoon, diluted in several million gallons of water used to frack the gas well. The tracer is detectable in water at the level of a few parts per quadrillion by means of polymerase chain reaction analysis, a method of magnifying strands of DNA.

The synthetic material has no effect on people or animals, Chow said, and one purpose of lab tests will be to verify that it doesn’t alter the composition of fracking fluid. It will require approval from N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources and other such agencies in other states for use in fracking operations.

The company conducted initial tests of a proprietary synthetic DNA formulation in vials at its Morrisville office, a work space provided by the First Flight Venture Center startup incubator.

Further analysis planned

BaseTrace plans further lab tests with RTI International and field tests with oil and gas companies later this year. If the company meets its deadlines, the tracer would be commercially available in time for the lifting of North Carolina’s fracking moratorium in March 2015 – an expiration date specified in a bill now making its way through the state legislature.

BaseTrace is seeking funding of $200,000 from the National Science Foundation for further testing and analysis. RTI will test the DNA to see how it holds up in temperatures of 350 degrees Fahrenheit, under 5,000 pounds per square inch of pressure, and in salinity levels comparable to sea water, said Ginger Rothrock, RTI’s program manager for energy technologies.

Mining & Energy Commission member Vik Rao, who is a former chief technology officer for the Halliburton Co. industrial conglomerate, said the decision to use tracers may not be up to the drillers. States are increasingly requiring chemical testing of drinking water wells before and after fracking takes place, he said, and tracers would be a more efficient way of monitoring water quality.

The market price of tracers may trigger a case of sticker shock.

It costs BaseTrace just a few hundred bucks to get its proprietary DNA formulation overnighted to Morrisville.

Chow and her colleagues initially estimated that they could charge energy companies $10,000 per dose, based on their product’s value to the industry. But more recently, they calculated a new retail price for their secret sauce: $40,000 per dose, plus $5,000 a year for monitoring and testing.

Recommended dosage is one squirt per well. Potential application: hundreds of wells that are fracked each year.

“The RTI testing and the field testing are the golden ticket to getting this fully to commercialization,” said Jake Rudolph, the company’s chief technology officer.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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