Opinion

Learning to live with the risks of power drilling | Richard Hill

When the media stumble across something unfamiliar they tend to treat it as something new.

That seems to be the case with hydraulic fracturing, a technique used to stimulate the flow of oil and gas from a well, either a newly drilled one or one that is in a state of diminishing yield.

The fact is that “frakking” has been in use since 1947, and has been proven to be a highly successful technology. Except in one case: mine.

Here’s the story.

I have been involved in the oil and gas business for nearly a quarter-century as the owner of working interests in several active wells, an investor in pipeline partnerships and also an investor in alternative energy companies. My earliest venture was as a working interest owner in a gas well about 30 miles north of Laredo, Texas, in 1988. The prospects looked good, but when we had finished drilling the results were disappointing. We decided to throw some more money into the hole by frakking it, hopefully to stimulate the flow of gas we were convinced was there.

On a warm June afternoon the caravan of frakking equipment arrived on site. It was an impressive array of stuff that Halliburton brought to the party: a half-dozen immense tanker trucks loaded with the water that would be forced down the shaft, a flatbed carrying several hundred sacks of wax pellets, a generator truck, a couple of vans carrying lights, conveyor belt, people and other equipment and a big pumping rig.

The setup took several hours, so it was well into the evening before the operation was ready to begin. A couple of the crew members dug a pit, made a fire and started a barbecue going while Mexican music blared over a boombox. This was just a thin festive veneer over serious business though. When all was ready, our operator gave the go-ahead, and frakking began. An explosive charge was lowered into well and set off somewhere around 6,000 feet down, creating holes in the shaft for the water to do its work.

The noise was tremendous: the generator huffed away providing power, the high-pressure pump roared, the conveyor belt ground away as a sweating crew sliced open bags of pellets and dumped them on it to be carried to the hopper that merged them with the water stream.

Inside a control booth we watched the progress on gauges in front of us while the scene was visible through a window. The pressure peaked at around 2,400 pounds per square inch as I recall, which is two or three times the pressure normally found in a well like ours. The high pressure was forcing the water and wax pellets into cracks in the stratum supposedly holding the gas, widening them. The pellets would hold the cracks open for a while until the water was pumped out again, then the heat of the underground would melt the wax and allow gas to flow through.

Around midnight or shortly thereafter, the pumping ceased and the water flow reversed to be sucked back into the tankers. By 3 or 4 a.m., activity dwindled to nothing, and the Halliburton crew packed up its gear and rumbled away. We waited in vain for a welcoming “whoosh” of product, told ourselves it would take a little time, and went off for some much needed sleep.

Sadly, the whoosh never came. We capped the well, hoped for better luck next time, and went home to lick our wounds.

One thing I carried away from that experience is something that everyone who buys gasoline or uses natural gas needs to remember: pursuing energy from the ground is an expensive, dirty, dangerous business. The forces involved are tremendous, the substances are toxic and explosive at every stage of recovery, transport, processing and use. The industry’s safety record is impressive given the scale of its operations, but no matter how careful it is, the environment is at some risk, as are the people who work in the field and in the refineries.

There is no “clean” way to satisfy modern societies’ need for power, and that need is growing, not disappearing. Alternatives to fossil fuels are decades away. For now we have to learn to live with the risks and to attempt to control our appetites for power.

Richard H. Hill has lived in Redmond for the last six years and writes a blog, “Old Dick’s Grumps for the Day.” To read his blog, go to www.olddick.blogspot.com.

 

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