Digging the Roots of Hydraulic Fracturing

Hydraulic fracturing of rock formations – or “fracking,” as it is now called by the public – has been hotly debated during the past several years, and public opinions have resulted in numerous legislative actions that closely control or even ban the practice in different parts of the nation.

Fracturing, however, actually has been used in the oil and gas industry for 67 years and in the granite quarrying business in North Carolina since 1903.

It is surprising that the energy industry didn’t develop the concept of hydro-fracturing much earlier. Perhaps that is due to a frequent lack of communication between hard rock and petroleum geologists.

Blast Off

Fracturing oil or gas wells actually began in 1865 in Pennsylvania, where the practice of “shooting” wells began. In January 1865, Edward A.L. Roberts, a recently cashiered army officer of the 28th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry Regiment, conceived the idea of clearing a clogged well bore by Oil Creek near Titusville, Pa., by blasting it with eight pounds of gunpowder.

That process was successful enough to gain Roberts a U.S. patent by fall of 1866.

By using a larger charge, up to 20 pounds of black powder in an iron container having a percussion cap wired to its top (termed a “torpedo”) and filling the hole with water to concentrate concussion, better fracturing around the explosion depth resulted – and production in some wells increased as much as 1,200 percent in one week.

Roberts soon figured out that nitroglycerine, invented in 1846, would be a preferable explosive – cleaner and more powerful – and use of nitroglycerine quickly outpaced that of black powder.

At first, four to six quarts of nitroglycerine comprised the charge, but as time progressed and wells were drilled deeper, the charge was increased to 60, 100 and 200 quarts.

The nitroglycerine was poured into a four-foot long, galvanized iron tube that had a conical bottom and concave top to allow another torpedo to nestle into the previous one. As a safety measure, the torpedo initially was filled with water that was displaced as the heavier nitro was decanted.

The loaded torpedo was then lowered down the well bore by a line to the desired depth, and a weight (the “go-devil”) was attached to slide down the line – or it could be free dropped to impact the nitro-filled torpedo.

The term “go-devil” is said to have originated because as soon as the shooter released it, he had to “go like the devil” to exit the rig floor before impact.

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Hydraulic fracturing of rock formations – or “fracking,” as it is now called by the public – has been hotly debated during the past several years, and public opinions have resulted in numerous legislative actions that closely control or even ban the practice in different parts of the nation.

Fracturing, however, actually has been used in the oil and gas industry for 67 years and in the granite quarrying business in North Carolina since 1903.

It is surprising that the energy industry didn’t develop the concept of hydro-fracturing much earlier. Perhaps that is due to a frequent lack of communication between hard rock and petroleum geologists.

Blast Off

Fracturing oil or gas wells actually began in 1865 in Pennsylvania, where the practice of “shooting” wells began. In January 1865, Edward A.L. Roberts, a recently cashiered army officer of the 28th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry Regiment, conceived the idea of clearing a clogged well bore by Oil Creek near Titusville, Pa., by blasting it with eight pounds of gunpowder.

That process was successful enough to gain Roberts a U.S. patent by fall of 1866.

By using a larger charge, up to 20 pounds of black powder in an iron container having a percussion cap wired to its top (termed a “torpedo”) and filling the hole with water to concentrate concussion, better fracturing around the explosion depth resulted – and production in some wells increased as much as 1,200 percent in one week.

Roberts soon figured out that nitroglycerine, invented in 1846, would be a preferable explosive – cleaner and more powerful – and use of nitroglycerine quickly outpaced that of black powder.

At first, four to six quarts of nitroglycerine comprised the charge, but as time progressed and wells were drilled deeper, the charge was increased to 60, 100 and 200 quarts.

The nitroglycerine was poured into a four-foot long, galvanized iron tube that had a conical bottom and concave top to allow another torpedo to nestle into the previous one. As a safety measure, the torpedo initially was filled with water that was displaced as the heavier nitro was decanted.

The loaded torpedo was then lowered down the well bore by a line to the desired depth, and a weight (the “go-devil”) was attached to slide down the line – or it could be free dropped to impact the nitro-filled torpedo.

The term “go-devil” is said to have originated because as soon as the shooter released it, he had to “go like the devil” to exit the rig floor before impact.

Needless to say, there were many spectacular and tragic accidents.

Pennsylvania author John James McLaurin in his 1896 book “Sketches in Crude Oil” described the danger:

“A flame or a spark would not explode nitroglycerine readily, but the chap who struck it a hard rap might as well avoid trouble among his heirs by having his will written and a cigar box ordered to hold such fragments as the weeping relatives could pick from the surrounding district.”

By the late 1940s, the DuPont Corporation had developed a desensitized product termed “red glycerine” that virtually replaced nitroglycerine as a means of well shooting.

Nevertheless, use of nitroglycerine continued. As late as May 1978, 380 quarts of the explosive detonated and destroyed a three-story plant near Titusville, Pa. The shock was felt six miles away, and debris was spread over a three-quarter mile radius.

A Good Start

It is possible that the hazards of nitroglycerine initiated research in alternative methods to improve permeability in oil well producing zones.

The first experimental hydro-fracturing test in the oil and gas industry was the result of a study by Stanolind’s Floyd Ferris on the relation between treatment pressures and well performance. The test was performed on the Stanolind (the exploration and production subsidiary of Standard Oil of Indiana – now BP-Amoco) Klepper Gas Unit Number One, located in the center of Section 8, Township 29 South, Range 38 West in Grant County, Kan., in the giant Hugoton gas field.

The well was drilled to 2,580 feet and completed in November 1946. It was shut in early in 1947 due to producing zone strata being clogged with drilling mud, but soon re-entered to try a newly developed fracturing technique.

The Klepper was fractured at a depth of 2,400 feet using a thousand gallons of a napalm mixture of blended palm oil, napthenic acid and gasoline with sieved and washed sand from the nearby Arkansas River to serve as a proppant. After fracturing, the well was treated with 20,000 gallons of hydrochloric acid.

No particular gain was reported, but apparently all were satisfied with the results, because the following year J.B. Clark of Stanolind published a paper that advised the industry of the experiment – and in 1949, Stanolind was issued a patent on the process.

With a patent in hand, Stanolind then granted an exclusive license to the Halliburton Oil Well Cementing Company, who in March 1949 performed the first two commercial hydrofracturing jobs:

  • The first, near Duncan in Stevens County, Oklahoma, cost $900.
  • The second at Holliday in Archer County, Texas, at cost of $1,000.

The fracturing fluid was lease crude oil or a crude/gasoline blend with 100 to 150 pounds of sand. Results must have pleased the well operators, for Halliburton did 332 fracturing jobs that first year.

The Atomic Age

Never content with progress, the federal government decided to “improve” the well-fracturing process.

In 1957, the (then) Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), Sandia National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Radiation Laboratory began secret meetings to discuss possible peaceful applications of nuclear weapons. The end result was Project Plowshare, which shared several intriguing applications.

Of interest to the oil and gas industry was the use of “nukes” to fracture tight, gas-bearing strata to release the gas. The AEC and commercial energy corporations were to be involved in the tests.

The first test, Project Gasbuggy, a joint project of the AEC and El Paso Natural Gas, was performed on Dec. 10, 1967, some 50 miles east of Farmington, N.M. A device yielding the explosive power of 20 kilotons of TNT was detonated at 4,227 feet below the surface, creating a surface crater that was 335 feet deep and 80 feet in diameter.

The test was successful in that natural gas was released – but, unfortunately, was too radioactive to be of any commercial use.

A second test was made: AEC, Austral Oil and CER Geonuclear Corp. teamed up for Project Rulison, a 40-kiloton shot on Sept. 10, 1969, at a site 14 miles southwest of Rifle, Colo. This test, too, resulted in radioactive gas in addition to radioactive contamination of deep bedrock around the shot cavity as well as some possible surface contamination.

Perhaps thinking the third time’s the charm, another test, Project Rio Blanco, was planned. AEC and CER Geonuclear partnered again, this time joined by Conoco.

A site in Rio Blanco County about 33 miles northwest of Rifle, was chosen. The hole would be shot in low permeability, fine-grained sandstone at the base of the Fort Union Formation (Paleocene) and top of the Mesa Verde Formation (Upper Cretaceous).

This test used three 33-kiloton devices that were simultaneously detonated at respective depths of 5,838, 6,230 and 6,689 feet below the surface.

The concept at Rio Blanco worked to a degree in that the test created a chimney as designed. Gas production was initially enhanced, but experienced a 40 percent decline during testing.

Like the predecessor tests, the gas was too radioactive for use.

In view of the economic concern (estimates that 25 years would pay back 15 to 40 percent of investment) and environmental worries, Project Plowshare was discontinued.

Irreplaceable?

With experience and application of the learning curve, hydro-fracturing took off on a large scale – it was deemed safe and resulting production was free of radiation.

By 2012, over 57,000 wells in Kansas had been fractured since Stanolind’s Klepper test in 1947. The U.S. Department of Energy has estimated that as of the year 2013, at least two million oil and/or gas wells have been hydraulic-fractured in the United States.

Improvement of horizontal drilling techniques first introduced in the 1930s combined with hydraulic fracturing has allowed development of tight formations and thinner producing zones. Incremental fracturing in long horizontal well bores has required new additives to fracturing fluid to compensate for natural petrologic variations.

Longer well bores require more liquid – a single horizontal fracturing operation in Kansas may call for more than two million gallons of water – a scarce product in some areas, not only in Kansas but worldwide.

Major worries concerning hydraulic fracturing as a source of earthquakes have caused public fear and additional politically inspired regulations and controls.

However, in order to meet increasing modern demands for energy, there seems to be nothing yet in view that will replace hydraulic fracturing. Wind and solar power are insufficient energy needs and fail to provide transportable energy, fusion – if ever attainable – is far in the future and the world’s public fears nuclear power.

For the time being, hydraulic fracturing and drilling seems to provide the only achievable option.

And it began in Kansas.

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