All Things Energy Volume 1 – The Hydraulic Fracturing Process
If finding and producing energy in America were as easy as Jed Clampett and his rifle made it look in the opening credits of the Beverly Hillbillies, we probably wouldn’t have needed to pioneer a well stimulation technology known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking for short.
But it isn’t, and so we did – Hi I’m Tamra Freeman with Breitling Energy and welcome to our newest segment of “All Things Energy”.
First using the process in 1947 to stimulate flow of natural gas from the Hugoton field in Kansas and the history of fracturing technology’s safe use in America extends all the way back to the Truman administration, with more than 1.2 million wells completed via the process since 1947.
But only recently has the term “hydraulic fracturing” entered the public’s vocabulary, a function of the enormous opportunities that the application of fracturing and horizontal drilling are making possible all around the country through the development of abundant resources from shale.
So what’s this technology all about? And how does what you may have heard about the process square with the facts as they actually exist?
In this section, we highlight – and correct – some of the most pervasive myths that have come to surround the debate over fracturing.
After the well is drilled and multiple layers of casing and cement are installed, the drilling crew is replaced by a fracturing crew, who then gets to work on preparing the water-based solution for delivery to the formation.
Water is far and away the most important aspect of a successful fracturing operation,as it not only creates the tiny fissures in the deep shale rock that liberate the natural gas, but also acts as a carrier and delivery mechanism for the sand, which helps keep those newly created fissures open so that resources can be collected. Of course, water alone can’t create those tiny fractures in the rock – you need to apply some pressure as well.
At a typical fracturing operation, dozens of “pump trucks” will be called in to help deliver the pressurized water down the wellbore. The solution itself is made up almost entirely of water and sand, 99.5 percent on average. The small percentage of materials that remain are additives that control the growth of bacteria in the wellbore (which, left unchecked, can corrode the pipes). Other additives alter the surface tension of the water so that it can be easily sent down the hole at the start, and then brought back up again when the fracturing operation is complete.
Today, nearly nine out of 10 onshore wells – natural gas and oil – require fracture stimulation to remain or become viable. And thanks to the emerging revolution in the development of U.S. shale gas, the technology is poised to play an even more important role moving forward – converting America’s massive, untapped energy potential into the reality of millions of well-paying jobs, billions in state and federal revenue, and a real path to a clean and affordable energy future.
Now finally, one question people always ask us is “Isn’t the composition of fracturing fluids a secret? The answer is – No, it’s not. As mentioned, greater than 99 percent of the fluid is composed of water and sand, and the small fraction of what remains includes many common industrial and even household materials that millions of American consumers use every day.
By both weight and volume, the most prominent of these materials is a substance known as “guar.” Sounds scary, right? It’s actually an emulsifying agent more typically found in ice cream. In fact, the ice cream industry hasn’t been too pleased with us recently, since, thanks to shale, we’ve been using a good bit of the stuff as of late (though the guar bean growers don’t seem to mind). The truth is, there isn’t a single “hazardous” additive used in the fracturing process that’s hidden from public view.
On the federal level, operators are bound by requirements of the Community Right-to-Know Act, passed in 1986, which mandate that detailed product information sheets be drawn up, updated, and made immediately available to first-response and emergency personnel in case of an accident on-site.
More recently, an effort led by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Ground Water Protection Council culminated in the creation of FracFocus.org which is a searchable, nationwide database with specific well-by-well information on the additives used in the fracturing process. States themselves have also upped the ante, with no fewer than a dozen updating their regulations over the past 12 months to promote additional disclosure.