Appalachian Basin

Fracturing Gums Things Up for Anti’s

How many times have we heard about the dangerous “chemicals” involved in hydraulic fracturing?  If there is one false message anti-gas hysterics have managed to plant in the public mind it is that fracturing involves hundreds of the most dangerous compounds known to man.  The truth, of course, is that each fracturing job involves a whole lot of sand and water (99.51% of volume) and a handful of other substances that are often pretty innocuous – things like guar gum, for instance.  Our friends on the other side blithely ignore all this, but they’ll no longer be able to do so.  Guar gum demand has soared with fracturing, production is down due to droughts and ice cream manufacturers, one of the many food industry users of guar gum, may be left without.  If you’re saying, “But, I thought those fracturing fluids were dangerous” …well, read on.

Guar gum consists primarily of the ground endosperm of guar beans, which are grown in mostly in India and Pakistan.  The guar seeds are dehusked, milled and screened to obtain the guar gum, which has almost eight times the water-thickening capacity of cornstarch.  It acts as an emulsifier because to help prevent oil droplets from coalescing and/or as a stabilizer to help prevent solid particles from settling.  It is used as a dietary fiber source and in textile, paper, laxatives, cosmetics, toothpaste, shampoo conditioners, food thickening agents, baked goods, yogurt, kefir, liquid cheese, salad dressings, ketchups, barbecue sauces, instant oatmeal, dry soups, ice cream and hydraulic fracturing.

Guar gum and other associated gelling agents typically represent 0.056% of hydraulic fluid or about 11.4% of everything that isn’t water and sand.  It takes about a teaspoon of guar gum to make a good quart of homemade ice cream (roughly 0.52% of volume) so there is, relatively speaking, about the same amount of guar guam in fracturing fluids (after taking away the water and sand) as there is in ice cream.  But, here’s the rub – hydraulic fracturing is really taking off.  Industrial guar demand now accounts for as much 45-50% of the market and some folks are feeling the pinch as these excerpts from a story in Food Business News indicate:

The oil industry’s increased use of guar gum has driven up its price, leaving food and beverage processors struggling to find supply of the ingredient used in such applications as ice cream and tortillas.

Prices of food grade guar gum, normally below $1 per lb, have risen above $2.50 per lb because of the oilfield industry’s use of guar gum, according to a July 28 “Hydrocolloid News” e-mailed report from IMR International, a hydrocolloid consulting company. According to the report, buyers of food grade guar gum are facing prices of more than $5.75 per kilogram ($2.61 per lb), delivery times of four to six months and, in some cases, demands to pay in advance.

The guar situation has reached dire circumstances.  “Unless there is a paradigm shift in technology for the oilfield industry or a shift in policy away from hydraulic fracturing, there is no end in sight for the current guar shortage. In the meantime, both producers and users of food guar are scrambling to find substitutes or extenders to guar.”

The oil industry always has used guar gum and started using a much larger volume in 2010 because of horizontal drilling techniques in shale gas and oil formations, said Dennis Seisun, founder of San Diego-based IMR International. Guar gum comes from plants, most of which are grown in India and Pakistan, he said.

“Basically the oil people are big buyers, big spenders,” he said. “They go to the guar suppliers and say, ‘What’s your price, and give me all you got.’ The food industry is getting left behind.”

When will the parabolic guar market come back to earth?

“It’s hard to tell,” Chris Freeman, functional systems and hydrocolloids product manager in the Americas for Cargill Texturizing Solutions, tells FBN. “It’s uncharted territory. We’ve never seen the guar market like this.”

That was two weeks ago. In the meantime, the guar outlook has worsened.

From India’s Business Standard:

The area under guar seed cultivation in Rajasthan this season stands at 2.76 million hectares, compared to 3 million hectares last season. In Haryana the area under guar has come down from 256,000 hectares registered last year to 215,000 hectares this year.

According to Rajesh Kedia of guar exporting concern Jai Bharat and Chemical Limited, the fall in acreage “was due to insufficient monsoons in Haryana and also an increase in the area under cotton cultivation (due to higher remunerative prices for cotton last season) at the cost of guar seed in some pockets of Haryana.”

So, there you have it – hydraulic fracturing could be to blame for at least one thing, but it’s not pollution of water supplies, it’s not methane in water wells, it’s not the destruction of man or beast, as anti-gas zealots would have it.  No, it’s higher ice cream prices.  But, I like to look on the bright side.  Guar is grown in the U.S., too, and I’ve got about 30 acres up in Damascus, so Tuesday, I’m going to visit Dave Messersmith at Penn State Extension (an agronomist who just happens to know a lot about shale gas) and see just what it takes to grow some guar beans in Wayne County.  I hope he has some good news, as that will really send our anti-gas friends into  a fit of sputtering.  We’ve already gummed things up enough for them.


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