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Oil drillers are increasingly hooking up to the grid for power, potentially straining infrastructure

A photo of an oil platform surrounded by a fence with the sun shining down in the background.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Texas Standard

Are we in the era of electric-powered drilling equipment? In the Texas oilfields, drillers are increasingly turning to electricity to run their machinery.

But that comes at a cost – like strain on the state’s power grid. The Wall Street Journal reports that frackers in the Texas oilfields are using almost as much electricity as four Seattles every day. Can the grid handle this shift long term?

Jennifer Hiller is Houston-based reporter for the Wall Street Journal and spoke with Texas Standard about why oil drillers are making the switch and what it means for the state’s power infrastructure. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Tell us about how things were done previously compared to this new trend of using electric power.

Jennifer Hiller: Well, I think oil and gas companies have always hooked up to the grid where they can for their pumps and things like that – so maybe once they drill and frack. To connect an oil pump, like a pump jack, to the grid has been something that’s happened for a long time.

But what we’ve seen in places like the Permian Basin is just enormous amounts of oilfield activity. There’s been this humongous production boom in the last decade. So you have a lot of the usual stuff connecting to the grid. Plus, they’re trying to, you know, move away from diesel generators and things where they can and to use electric power instead.

And so all of that has meant a huge demand for more electricity in that region.

Why this shift? Pressure from investors thinking about global warming considerations? Or is there a financial benefit for these drillers?

There’s both actually.

Electricity is cheaper in a lot of instances. It’s usually cheaper to run something off of the grid if you can, versus having diesel trucks drive out there all the time to remote areas to deliver fuel. So there can be cost savings.

And then there’s also been a lot of investor pressure over the last several years for oil and gas companies, especially the publicly traded larger ones, to reduce their emissions. And this is one way that they can do it.

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But I’m curious what the impact is in terms of carbon emissions. I know I’ve seen photographs of these big charging stations that are, of course, remote. They’re not necessarily connected to the grid, per se, but they’re powered by burning big chunks of wood. You pair that with the grid, and you wonder is this a sustainable way or a better way than the old way?

Well, you know, there’s a lot of things that are going to be cleaner than a diesel generator, essentially.

So a lot of what you’re seeing out in the oil field is maybe switching to natural gas instead. So where they might be able to run equipment off of either field gas that’s coming kind of right out of their production or pipeline gas if they can, you know, switch to engines that are burning natural gas instead of diesel. There are some savings there.

And so in some instances they’re able to use electricity directly, in some cases they might be able to do a natural gas generator instead and make electricity that way.

I guess I’m asking, does this reduce emissions in any meaningful way or are we looking at a kind of greenwashing in a sense?

You know, there are estimates that the more that they can electrify processes, it will have an impact. There’s some estimates that globally the oil field could reduce emissions in the field by about half if they can switch to electric processes versus running things off of fuel.

But what does that do to energy security, though, for the rest of Texas? Because we already know that the Texas power grid has been under considerable strain.

Right. Yeah, we definitely have that issue in Texas and some reliability concerns.

I guess one thing is that it does take a while to build out grid infrastructure. So this is not something where everybody can connect as soon as they want to connect to the grid. It takes a while to build out any sort of transmission or distribution line or substation or something like that. So that takes a while and sort of rolls in over time.

But, you know, ultimately you’re going to have to build more kinds of power generation in Texas. So one of the utilities that works in Texas and New Mexico is forecasting that they’re going to need to build something like 5 to 10GW of new power generation to be able to serve the growing need in that area.

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