Most conventional fracturing fluids are water-based polymer systems. Unconventional fracturing fluids are typically water-based mixtures utilizing friction-reducing agents, commonly known as slickwater fracs. Other systems include non-polymer systems composed of gels, foams, hydrocarbons or liquid carbon dioxide, which use less or no water, and may have a variety of different benefits outside of low water intensity. These minimize or eliminate water in formation in the case of water-sensitive formations or water-damaged formations and can work at a variety of different temperatures and pressures.
Subsurface fracturing did not always require water or fluids. Early stimulation was much more explosive.
Boom – Rick Tallini – Otto Cupler Torpedo Company
My name is Rick Tallini. I work for the Otto Cupler Torpedo Company that’s based in Titusville, Pennsylvania. In the early days of Pennsylvania, where the oil business started here in the United States, discovering oil was kind of an accidental discovery. Edwin Drake was the first person to come up with the idea of drilling a commercial oil well for the purpose of producing oil. That was in the wonderful city of Titusville, Pennsylvania. Folks said, “Boy, if he hit in Titusville, it’s got to be all along Oil Creek,” and the boom was on.
The first idea that I’m aware of where a fellow got the idea for stimulating wells with torpedoes was a fellow by name of Colonel Edward Augustus Roberts. During the Civil War, the Battle of Fredericksburg, Colonel Roberts saw shells bursting in millraces, and he saw the damage they were doing when the shell went off underwater. He says, “Hey, this might actually work, if I explode this torpedo in a well to increase the production, increase some fractures.” Even then, I think they understood that you needed fractures.
There were other folks that shot wells to a very minor degree, but the results were very mixed. The notable failure I can think of is John Wilkes Booth, the fellow that shot Abraham Lincoln. He decided to take a chance at making some additional money by investing in an oil well in northwestern Pennsylvania. He decided to shoot it with explosives and ruined the well, caved it in. It never made another drop.
Colonel Roberts came to Titusville in 1865, trying to get someone to take an interest in letting him torpedo a well. The idea for a torpedo in shooting an oil well or a water well was unique. Now, of course, considering the other failures, people were reluctant to let the Colonel do this. Finally, someone let him go ahead and experiment to produce oil. The earliest torpedo in 1865 was black powder. 1867, they started using nitroglycerin. Nitroglycerin is probably about 10 times more powerful than black powder and did a much better job of breaking big rock into little rock than black powder did. It’s an extremely sensitive explosive. Because of that sensitivity, it was very dangerous to handle.
Colonel Roberts had a hand winch that had rope on it. On the end of the rope, he had a tin torpedo that held the nitroglycerin. The operator would pour the nitroglycerin into the torpedo, and lower the charge down into the well. He would have to lower the torpedo in, because if you dropped the torpedo, a nitroglycerin torpedo impacting either oil or water would most of the time blow up. People were literally incinerated by nitroglycerin shots, so you had to be very careful. They had cast-iron weights they called go-devils, looked like a cross, a long, cylindrical cross. He’d drop that down the well to a percussion detonator on the Roberts Torpedo that contained black powder or nitroglycerin and the shot would go off.
These wells that they were shooting with torpedoes were making many times more oil than what they were making when they were originally drilled. Colonel Roberts obtained a patent on torpedoing wells. Roberts was charging inordinate rates to shoot torpedoes. He hired an army of detectives, pinkertons, to enforce his patent rights against individuals that weren’t paying the Roberts fees. Moonlighting was a term that originated in Pennsylvania during these years of patent violation. Moonlighter was someone that was torpedoing wells illegally at night against the Roberts patent. These pinkertons were so thick, like flies in the woods, if they saw one of these oil gushers, they were on you. Moonlighting morphed into our common language today. Roberts made an absolute fortune in Titusville. I believe some of his heirs are still spending that money.
After 1883, the patents expired. Congress refused to renew them, and anybody could shoot a well. Using nitroglycerin to stimulate oil wells was terribly dangerous. You had no regulation. The mind of man was free to experiment, and create chaos, and also to create genius. Hundreds, and I mean literally hundreds of people were killed throughout the United States torpedoing wells. There were a number of incidents where five, six people were killed by shrapnel would go out hundreds of feet from the well site. Many of them were spectators. It’s hard to fathom, but people love being near power.
Shooting of wells with explosives was an industry that had probably well over 100 torpedo companies throughout the oil states of California, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Ohio, Illinois, you name it. That nitroglycerin use in 1867 that Roberts did and others did increased the world’s gross domestic product and standard of living many times over, catapulted the US and other nations into the Industrial Age. The torpedo business died out west because of hydraulic fracturing after about 1947. It was definitely dead in the 1950s.
In my own memory, the last nitroglycerin torpedo that we shot was in 1990. “Okay. That’s a well for Cranberry [inaudible] Oil. It’s got 90 quarts of nitromethane in it. There she went.” Well, any kind of innovation takes place, whether it’s in the oil business, some other business, is we are trying to get the most productivity that we can to enhance the well-being of society. Let’s face it. If you go from one person loading a well and making a 20-barrel-a-day well to scores of people making thousands of barrels of oil, the scale and the improvement for mankind is limitless. I still know a few fellows that are older than me that still say, “Rick, there’s nothing like that liquid nitro for stimulating an oil well.” Oh, yeah, man. I hear you talking.
Images: “Water and air bubbles” by robert_s via Shutterstock