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Meet the winemaker who claims he can make fracking cleaner

Alejandro Bulgheroni is acclaimed for his wine and olive oil. Now he’s aiming to make controversial fracking cleaner, though critics have doubts.

Meet the winemaker who claims he can make fracking cleaner
[Photo: courtesy of Bodega Garzon]

After making his fortune in oil before transitioning to vineyards and olive groves, billionaire Alejandro Bulgheroni is funding a new fracking method that he asserts is cleaner and could transform the industry.

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The 76-year-old Argentinian made the bulk of his estimated $3.5 billion fortune in the international oil and gas industry, eventually adding wind power and other renewable power arenas to his portfolio. During the last 10 years, he moved his focus from his native Argentina to neighboring Uruguay and the seaside region of Garzon.

Alejandro Bulgheroni [Photo: courtesy of Bodega Garzon]
Amid the rolling hills about 100 miles north of Montevideo along the windy Atlantic coast, he built Colinas de Garzon Olive Oil mill and Bodega Garzon Winery, its elite Club Garzon community, and the brand-new PGA Preferred Tajamares Golf Club.

“Each of the industries I try have a special story,” Bulgheroni tells Fast Company as he stands in front of a conference room window overlooking the sprawling vineyards that yield Garzon’s unique and award-winning Marselan and Balasto vintages. “My main passion is the oil business. I’ve been in it for 53 years. I know the different wells by number and the different production areas by name because I’ve always been interested in the details–as opposed to studying only the strategic elements.”

“I believe that in order to understand a business, you must work within it and understand how it works from day one. That idea interconnects all of my interests–with the oil, with the wine. But it’s all a matter of devoting time to each, because that is the resource that’s most difficult to manage.”

[Photo: courtesy of Bodega Garzon]
Bulgheroni started his wine and olive oil brands by taking a “boots on the ground, hands in the dirt” approach in Uruguay. “When I do something, I try to concentrate and put my focus into it completely. For my golf course, I planted almost every tree out there because I love it. I tour the vineyards with my wine makers to test the terroir.”

Over the years, Bulgheroni developed a passion for green energy and the production of cleaner power. Now, what started with windmills and solar has evolved into a new, proprietary, electrified fracking technique.

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Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is an oil-drilling technology that essentially breaks up layers of rock with high-pressure water. Deep wells, sometimes reaching thousands of feet down to contact cap rock, allow high-pressure fluid injection to shatter striations of shale, releasing the petroleum held underneath for collection. The controversial technique has raised plenty of health and environmental concerns by causing everything from tremors in the ground to polluting the groundwater in drilling areas.

[Photo: courtesy of Bodega Garzon]

The promise of electrification

“Fifteen years ago, I thought I knew a lot about the oil and gas business,” Bulgheroni explains. “Since then, I had to learn about shale fraction. After studying it, we set out to design fracking equipment that is all driven by electricity.”

From the drill to the fluid injection to the oil collection, the electrified mechanisms run on power produced by a turbine fueled by natural gas released during the fracking process–redirected from the drilling field back into the fracking process rather than getting burned off as waste.

“We use absolutely no oil to produce energy [while fracking]. It’s all electric. We have 21 patents on the process now. After so many years in the industry, something new came along. That’s exciting. Now, we’re looking at more ways to improve and expand the process.”

Bulgheroni insists that this electrified fracking came about when science met opportunity. While any fracking operation could’ve studied and developed electrification, he pursued it because the chance to ease environmental damage merged with affordability.

“The process has to do with the joining of economics and technology. When we started looking into sand power, it was very expensive–$6 million per megawatt. Today’s, it’s $600,000. Technology drove the possibility of more sand energy.”

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“Wind used to be three or four times the cost to produce what it is today. The technology now exists to make bigger mills more efficiently to produce the electricity with very low windspeed. That is technology that allows you more hours in the day to produce electricity more efficiently.”

He’s reluctant to speak in detail about the pending patents emerging from his protected electrification process, but Bulgheroni insists similar tech advances made his new, cleaner fracking mechanisms possible.

“A real danger of fracking focuses on water quality”

While burning no fossil fuels undoubtedly makes electrified shale fracturing environmentally cleaner, the new concepts don’t make fracking risk-free. Professor James McNamara, chair of the Boise State University Department of Geosciences, insists the most essential threats of fracking can’t be cured with electricity.

“A real danger of fracking focuses on water quality,” McNamara says. “Fracking could allow for contamination of an area’s [water] table.

“First of all, the forced release of oil could allow petroleum to leak into a water supply. Also, while we look on fracking as smashing softer rocks with water, the process doesn’t use just water. The actual fracking fluid is a chemical cocktail of various hydraulic compounds. We’re not sure which chemicals are involved from well to well as drilling companies usually keep their mixes under wraps in case another operation wants to steal their techniques. That’s all proprietary information, including pump pressures and fluid recipes.”

McNamara explains that the frackers force their hydraulic mix into the well at high pressure and leave it there. There isn’t enough gathered data on what that could mean.

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“We haven’t figured out what they should do with the fracking fluid, so it can contaminate the water above it.”

In addition to the aquatic worries, McNamara points out that the lack of fossil fuel use can’t stop fracking’s most significant potential threat.

“The fracturing actually causes small earthquakes. When a rock in the deep surface breaks, that’s a quake. In some areas like Oklahoma and North Dakota, we’re seeing thousands more small earthquakes per day than we’ve ever seen before.”

“We think we’re making new fault lines and aggravating pre-existing ones,” he says. “We can’t be sure because the U.S. Geological Survey can’t get data from the fracking companies under such little regulation.”

In Uruguay, Bulgheroni is aware of fracking’s reputation and its detractors, saying that he’s still working on less harmful techniques. He’s faced similar opposition to traditional oil drilling and the introduction of larger windmills. Considering the future he’s building for his own children and grandchildren, he believes the only possible solution to the tense coexistence of energy needs and ecological concerns is constant research and refinement.

“We must continue employing technology to improve efficiency. That’s how we’ll use less energy and reduce our need to generate it. Advancement in everything from computers to equipment applied to many industries across the world all allows for cleaner, more efficient energy.”

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