At TOP Energy, our courses are designed to connect learners with subject-matter experts, enabling them to better understand the broad technical aspects of the oil and gas industry. Hydraulic fracturing, often called “fracking,” but more commonly referred to as “frac’ing” by those in the industry, is a process that’s frequently in the news.
To better understand the history and process of hydraulic fracturing, we spoke with one of our subject-matter experts, Dr. Jennifer L. Miskimins, who delivered a webinar titled Hydraulic Fracturing: Fact vs. Fiction as part of our online TOPCORP “Hot Topics” symposium series. Professor Miskimins is head of the Petroleum Engineering Department at Colorado School of Mines and has 30 years of experience in the industry. She has watched the reception of hydraulic fracturing shift from being unaware to finding it controversial. We asked her to help us with a 30,000-ft view, which she was happy to do even though she usually works 10,000ft below the surface.
Does fracking refer to a specific process?
“Hydraulic fracturing is very specific to using hydraulic pressure to actually crack rock…When people talk about fracking, they refer to the process by which high pressure is generated to fracture or crack the rocks beneath the surface. Large high-pressure trucks on the surface send fluids down through what is usually an 8-inch wellbore and use that pressure to break the rock. These fine cracks and fissures give the rock a high permeability, which allows the flow to increase.”
Why is fracking such a hot button issue?
Hydraulic fracturing becomes a focal point for politicians or newspapers because of the wide use of the technology. But just because they are talking about it now doesn’t make it new. In fact, people have been trying to “break” rock in the subsurface to increase production since the time of the Civil War!
In the 1940s, engineers came up with another novel idea for breaking rock to increase production – hydraulic fracturing.
“The first [hydraulic fracturing job] was 1947. That was a research project. 1949 was the first commercial [application]. It was done in Texas; it was done in Oklahoma. It has been done on every continent except Antarctica. It’s been done in millions of wells and has been for 70 years now.
More recently, it has been utilized in more unconventional reservoirs and shale plays. So we have seen the [application of] fracturing move from way out in the middle of West Texas to more and more in the Dallas/Fort Worth area or near Denver. This increase in treatments and proximity just attracts more attention and curiosity. And with attention comes questions.”
Why is hydraulic fracturing so commonly used?
The goal of hydraulic fracturing is to increase flow, or production, of a well. Sure, it would be great if we could ‘super-size’ our drilling hole, but for economic and mechanical reasons a well can only be so big.
“We’re drilling a well that is eight inches in diameter. So [the drill is essentially a] straw that’s eight inches in diameter that goes from surface to 10,000 ft in depth. What fracturing does at its very basis is make that wellbore look much bigger to the reservoir, and therefore it creates a larger pressure sink.
[The fractured] rock makes this wellbore, instead of being eight inches in diameter, look like it’s 80 feet in diameter. It’s a huge pressure sink, and now fluids are much more capable of flowing into it.
And in some rock types that have very low permeability, unless you use hydraulic fracturing, you’re not going to initiate flow at all. So just by drilling down there doesn’t mean you’re going to start to get this flow in there.
Some resource deposits are just not accessible in an economical way without the use of hydraulic fracturing.”
To learn more about the hydraulic fracturing process, click here for a recent webinar by Dr. Miskimins.
What advances have there been to the fracking process?
There have been several advances that have increased the efficiency and effectiveness of the process.
There are not really any apparent alternatives at this point that still provide the same economics and environmental safety as fracking. But everyone is always exploring how we can make this process faster, cheaper, cleaner, more efficient. Some are even exploring the use of carbon dioxide for fracturing. Taking CO2 from the atmosphere and then putting it underground could serve multiple purposes.
Additional technological advances have contributed to the success of the hydraulic fracturing process in recent years.
“For instance, horizontal drilling has been an enormous breakthrough. The ability to drill vertically and then turn a corner to access deposits means access to several places without disturbing as much of the surface. Additionally, adding fracturing to these horizontal bores has made the process even more effective.
There have been advancements in the type of [drill] bits, and even a reduction in the trucks’ size and noise production on the surface. A big needle mover has been more precise ways to do diagnostic work to explore what is happening below the surface. Fiber optics are being used to see how things are breaking and allow for a more accurate process.”
Is Fracking a bad word?
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years. And in that 30 years, I have always called it fracking. Because that just tends to be what the industry shorthand has been.
But here’s the interesting part about it. The industry always shortened it with a ‘c’ing’.
There was never a K in it.
And I tell my students if you look at hydraulic fracturing, the actual official term, there is no “K” in fracturing. The opposition to fracturing actually started using the K. There are studies out there that show that the ‘K’ makes it much more abrupt or [people] have a much more negative reaction to it with the K in it.”
Some parting thoughts and takeaways from Dr. Jennifer Miskimins
“I think one of the biggest things is don’t listen to the 30-second soundbite…take the time to understand the process and where the concerns really lie. There’s nothing wrong with regulating, and we just want to make sure that we’re regulating the right thing.
And so for people to understand the pros and cons of a certain process, you’ve got to know a little bit more than what…Facebook or the nightly news is telling you, right? So take some time to actually look into it. There are a lot of really good, [informative] sites out there.”
Want to learn more about Hydraulic Fracturing? Watch Dr. Jennifer Miskimins’ Hydraulic Fracturing: Fact vs. Fiction video:
If you are interested in further reading, check out these articles from other expert resources recommended by Dr. Miskimins:
Hydraulic Fracturing Basics (American Geosciences Institute)
Hydraulic Fracturing Technology (Energy4Me)
Images: “Ursa UIC well 045-12082 Valley Farms #D3.” by Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), cogcc.state.co.us