Jeffrey Weiss | The Dallas Morning News | 1 June 2016
Thirty-five years ago, discussions about oil and gas in America centered around the power of OPEC, high prices, and played-out domestic fields. One unassuming well in Wise County helped transform the conversation here and around the world.
To mark that anniversary, an organization called North Texans for Natural Gas has produced a pretty good history of fracking in the Barnett Shale. It tracks how a drilling method that had been tried and mostly dismissed in the 1860s was revived in our own backyard. The results? Relatively cheap oil worldwide and incredibly low prices for natural gas in the United States.
From what you pay for the gasoline you put in your tank to the cost of polyester jeans, you can draw a line back to a well named C.W. Slay #1. And a fellow named George Mitchell. It’s a story about American — and Texan — ingenuity. You can read the whole account here.
The report is missing a few details, however. No history of oil and gas production in shale — the Barnett or elsewhere — is complete without at least some reference to the downsides, the issues that are a matter of current controversy: Earthquakes tied to the disposal of waste water from fracked wells. Methane release and the potential impact on global warming. Water issues such as the challenge of finding a supply large enough for the fracking process. Not to mention questions about water contamination from the chemicals and materials used for fracking. None get addressed here.
And frankly, the efforts to deal with these problems by petro-engineers in North Texas and elsewhere are themselves a story of ingenuity, if only a work in progress.
Why leave all that out? A spokesman for North Texans for Natural Gas offered an explanation: “In a perfect world we could talk about everything. But the focus here is the global significance of the Barnett Shale.”
Well alrighty. And even a smiley-face story of fracking is a pretty good tale. Here are a few excerpts:
In 1981, a businessman named George Mitchell set out to develop the Barnett Shale, located in the Fort Worth Basin in North-Central Texas. Geologists and engineers had long known that shale deposits like the Barnett contained vast quantities of natural gas, but getting the natural gas to flow from the rocks was considered too difficult and too expensive. Where others saw a waste of time and money, Mitchell saw potential, and for nearly two decades he experimented with different fluids and drilling techniques to try to “crack the code” of the Barnett.
Ultimately, the technologies first deployed in the Barnett Shale, including the use of a slick water frack and combining fracking with horizontal drilling, helped make the development of shale resources not only possible, but also economical. The groundbreaking work done in the Barnett Shale paved the way for the development of shale plays across the country, making new sources of oil and natural gas available for the first time ever.
Mitchell’s efforts to get the oil and gas out of the Barnett weren’t exactly instant successes.
In an in interview with Forbes in 2009, Mitchell recalled: “My engineers kept telling me, ‘You are wasting your money, Mitchell.’ And I said, ‘Well damn it, let’s figure this thing out, because there is no question there is a tremendous source bed that’s about 250 feet thick.”
He tried water. He tried carbon dioxide. He tried a gel. All worked — but not good enough. “Slick water” made the difference. That’s a mix of water and sand and chemical additives. Some version of that is used today. It had been used elsewhere in non-shale formations with some success. Mitchell’s engineers brought it to the Barnett in 1997.
After multiple failed attempts, [Mitchell Energy engineer Nick Steinsberger] finally successfully used a slick water frack on his fifth well, the S.H. Griffin #4, located near Ponder, Texas. The S.H. Griffin #4 produced 1.3 million cubic feet of natural gas per day for the first 90 days, an unbelievable amount for the time.
And the rest, no kidding, is history. The techniques used by Mitchell’s crew were quickly taken up, adapted and improved across the Barnett. And to the Eagle Ford and Marcellus and Bakken and other less famous shale fields across the United States. Eventually, production in some of those locations surpassed what’s being produced in the Barnett. Gas and oil prices got so cheap that the Barnett stopped making economic sense for most drillers. But if prices come up, there’s still plenty of product left in the ground.
(Particularly if those environmental and seismic issues can be dealt with.)