A Look At What Hydraulic Fracking Is and Its History

November 28, 2013

It is fair to say that hydraulic fracturing, often known as hydrofracturing or simply fracking, has completely revolutionized the oil and gas industry. Hydraulic fracking is used in conjunction with new technologies such as horizontal drilling to recover previously unrecoverable or uneconomic oil and gas reserves, and it is also used with conventional wells to stimulate and improve production. In this three part series we’ll take an in-depth look at what hydraulic fracking is, its history, how it is done, and what benefits it has to offer.

What Is Hydraulic Fracking?

In the simplest terms “hydraulic fracturing” refers to the fracturing or breaking of a rock due to forces caused by a pressurized liquid. In the context of the oil and gas industry and for the remainder of most of this article we will be discussing a process referred to as “induced hydraulic fracturing” which is a man-made process. However, hydraulic fracturing can also occur in a completely natural state without intervention from human beings such as when geologic forces cause vein or dike formation.

Hydraulic fracking in the context of the oil and gas industry refers to a recovery technique in which case a fluid, usually water, is mixed with sand and chemicals and then injected into a wellbore at high pressure in order to create small fractures in the rock. These fractures, though typically less than 1mm, greatly increase the permeability of underground rock and allow larger volumes of oil or gas to be recovered. Hydraulic fracturing is very commonly used in the shale plays.

The History of Hydraulic Fracturing

Pre-Hydraulic Fracturing

The 1800s – The first commercial US oil well was the Drake Well, which was drilled in 1859 by Edwin Drake. By the 1860s the earliest form of human-induced (non-hydraulic) fracturing was being done on shallow, hard rock oil wells to help stimulate production. It was done using liquid and later solidified nitroglycerin.

The 1930s – By the 1930s drillers had come up with the idea of using acid rather than nitroglycerin as a nonexplosive substitute. The fractures caused by acid etching were more resistant to re-closing, thereby enhancing productivity.

Early Hydraulic Fracturing

The 1940s – During the 1940s Floyd Farris of Stanolind Oil and Gas Corporation began studying the relationship between a well’s performance and the treatment pressures on it. His research led to the first experimental hydraulic fracturing which occurred in 1947 at the Hugoton gas field, located in Grant County, Kansas.

The experiment involved injecting 1,000 gallons of gelled gasoline and sand into a gas-producing limestone formation at a depth of about 2,400 feet. Unfortunately the experiment did not prove very successful and the well’s performance did not appreciably improve.

Research continued and on March 17, 1949 the Halliburton Oil Well Cementing Company conducted two commercial hydraulic fracking treatments. One was performed Stephens County, Oklahoma, and the other was performed in Archer County, Texas. These applications were much more successful and from there the technique took off.

The 1960s – The 1960s saw the first use of a process called “massive hydraulic fracturing” which involves injecting treatments of very high volume fluids and proppants. This first treatment was also done in Stephens County, Oklahoma and occurred in 1968. It was conducted by Pan American Petroleum.

The 1970s – The 1970s was the large scale rise and proliferation of massive hydraulic fracturing. The process began to be used in thousands of gas wells all over the Piceance Basin, San Juan Basin, Denver Basin the Green River Basin to recover natural gas from low permeability sandstone. In addition to these basins the Clinton-Medina Sandstone, and Cotton Valley Sandstone plays also benefited from the improved economy of using massive hydraulic fracturing. By the late 1970s the practice had also spread outside of the US and was being used in western Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

Modern Hydraulic Fracturing

The 1990s – The 1990s saw the beginning of what is generally considered the modern era of hydraulic fracking. This occurred when George P. Mitchell, considered by many to be the “father of modern fracking” pioneered the technique of horizontal drilling and combined it with hydraulic fracking in the Barnett Shale of Texas. The first horizontal well was drilled in this region in 1991 and then in 1996 – slickwater fluids began to be used, fully kick starting the modern fracking age.

The 2000s – Today – By the year 2010 around 60% of all new crude oil and natural gas wells worldwide were using the process of hydraulic fracturing to increase production and efficiency. By 2012 around 2.5 million hydraulic fracking jobs had been performed worldwide. Of those 2.5 million over 1 million of them occurred in the United States.

In this article we discussed a brief overview of what hydraulic fracking is and how it has evolved since its early days. Stay tuned for the next part of this series in which we will examine the process of hydraulic fracking in more depth and discuss the fluids and equipment that make it possible.