Hydraulic fracturing: Reality, history and a little attitude

I want to like hydraulic fracturing technology in oil and gas drilling. Why? Well, because I enjoy driving my car, living in a warm house, cooking on a gas stove, watching Top Shot, Project Runway and just about anything on the Science Channel on my HDTV and checking emails on my smartphone.

The increased success in drilling allowed by modern fracking technology means jobs, but it should also mean lower natural gas prices for consumers across our nation.

On a global scale, the technology allows many gas-importing nations (like Poland, Ukraine and parts of Europe) to become gas-exporting nations, freeing them finally from the temperamental stranglehold of the gas giant Russia.

While it may seem like a recent phenomenon, hydraulic fracturing can be traced as far back as the 1860s to Kentucky, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, when liquid nitroglycerin was exploded in shallow wells to “stimulate” the flow of oil, gas and water. Known then as “shooting a well,” it was quite effective. But as you can imagine, transporting and handling nitro was extremely dangerous, so fracking a well was not a common practice back then.

Then sometime in the 1930s, drillers began experimenting with a nonexplosive approach using different ingredients, and after a lot of trial and error, they began to see effective results. But it wasn’t until 1947, when a couple of guys with Stanolind Oil and Gas Corporation came up with the idea of using a mixture of naphthenic acid and palm oil (napalm) and gasoline, which they tested in the Hugoton gas field in Kansas, that the first commercially viable fracking process was realized.

Stanolind was issued a patent for the process in 1949, with an exclusive license granted to Halliburton Oil Well Cementing Company for pumping. HOWCO, as it was called back then, used hydraulic fracturing in about 300 wells that first year.

By the mid-1950s, the company was fracking up to 3,000 wells a month, using remote-controlled pumps, many of which were powered by Allison Aircraft engines from WWII. Around that time, more water was added to the mix and new gels replaced the napalm. Through the following decades, new chemical stabilizers were developed to further refine the process, while cements and casing construction methods were greatly improved. Top scientists in state-of-the-art facilities have helped to advance the technology to ensure its success.

While advances in the technology now make it possible to access previously untapped oil and natural gas reserves, the renewed vigor to increase drilling has unleashed a wave of public protests and demands for more stringent regulations. With so much information and misinformation circulating, it can be confusing for the general public — especially for those who don’t fall under the jobs-at-all-costs spell. Let’s face it: Not everyone perceives the benefits of living in an extractive industries community in the same way.

Fracking is currently regulated by individual states because no two areas have the same geology, climate, infrastructure and so on. According to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, about 90 percent of oil and gas wells in our state are fracked wells, while New York and New Jersey have declared temporary bans on use of the technology.

The oil and gas industry in Texas, if you can believe it, is regulated by its state railroad commission. (Air pollution in Tarrant County, Texas, has become downright nasty as a result of rampant drilling over the past few years. The county sits right on top of the massive Barnett Shale, and drilling goes on even in residential neighborhoods and city parks. The University of Texas at Arlington actually has 22 producing wells on campus.)

Therefore, the idea of a one-size-fits-all national approach to fracking rules currently under consideration by the Environmental Protection Agency really doesn’t make sense. Nor does getting rid of the EPA entirely, an idea espoused by some of our politicians. Who in the world comes up with this stuff? The response to people’s fears over water and air quality concerns — whether or not those fears are founded — is to demand less environmental regulation? Yeah, that’ll win ‘em over.

We need to know — not just be told in tidy sound bites — that the decision-makers in Houston, Tulsa, Denver and Washington, as well as the guys at the well sites who are responsible for doing the actual work, truly respect the long-term health of our communities, landscapes, watersheds, and air quality as much as they value their record-breaking profits. Sincere acknowledgments — on both sides of the equation — can go a long, long way.

Disclaimer: Krystyn Hartman admits to having many fond memories of growing up in employee housing at a large gas plant in New Mexico. She can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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