How An American Environmentalist Invented Fracking

  • Date: 17/09/20
  • Daniel Yergin, Marketplace

In his new book, The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations, Daniel Yerginvice chairman of IHS Markit and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, describes how an environmental entrepreneur drove the rise of fracking technology which changed America’s position in the world. 

If you want to get to the beginning of the shale revolution, pick up Interstate 35E out of Dallas and head north forty miles and then take the turnoff for the tiny town of Ponder. Pass the feed store, the white water tower, the sign for the Cowboy Church, and the donut store that’s closed down. Another four miles and you’re in Dish, Texas, population about 400. You end up at a wire mesh fence around a small tangle of pipes with a built-in stepladder. You’re there—the SH Griffin #4 natural gas well. The sign on the fence tells the date—DRILLED IN 1998.

That was not exactly a great time to be drilling a well. Oil and gas prices had cratered with the Asian financial crisis and the ensuing global economic panic. But SH Griffin #4 would change things more than anyone could have imagined at the time.

The well was drilled mainly with standard technology, but also with experimentation and ingenuity, despite considerable skepticism. The small band of believers working on the well were convinced that somehow you could extract natural gas from dense shale rock in a way that was commercially viable—something that the petroleum engineering textbooks said was impossible. More than anyone else, the unshakable conviction belonged to one man, their boss—George P. Mitchell.

By the 1970s, he had built a sizable oil and gas company, though with ups and downs along the way. But he had an unusual proclivity. He favored natural gas over oil.

Around 1972, he came across The Limits to Growth, a book by an environmental group, the Club of Rome. It predicted that a soon-to-be overpopulated world would run out of natural resources. Intrigued, he became increasingly interested in environmental issues. Natural gas became for him not only a business but also a cause, for it was cleaner than burning coal. Sometimes he would call up people and berate them if he thought that they had said something nice about coal.

Fueled by his new environmental ethos, he launched a totally different business—creating a wooded, landscaped, forty-four-square-mile master-planned community north of Houston called The Woodlands. Its slogan was “the livable forest.” (Today it has a population over one hundred thousand.) Mitchell involved himself in the decision making down to the details of the flower beds and trees and populating it with wild turkeys (until one got shot).

Yet he could hardly ignore his energy business. He had a big problem. Mitchell Energy was contracted to provide 10 percent of Chicago’s natural gas. But the reserves of gas in the ground to support that contract were running down. Mitchell Energy needed to do something. That is when Mitchell stumbled across a possible solution.

In 1981, he read the draft of a journal article by one of his geologists. The article offered a hypothesis that ran counter to what was taught in geology and petroleum engineering classes. It suggested that commercial gas could be extracted deep underground from very dense rock—denser than concrete. This was the source rock, the “kitchen” in which organic material was “cooked” for several million years and transformed into oil or gas. According to the textbooks, the oil and gas then migrated into reservoirs, from which it could be extracted.

It was thought at the time that oil and gas might still remain in the shale but could not be produced on a commercial basis because they could not flow through the dense rock. The draft article disagreed. Mitchell, beset by worries about the contract for Chicago, became convinced that here might be the road to his company’s salvation. There had to be a way to prove the received wisdom wrong.

The test area would be the Barnett Shale, named for a farmer who had come out to the area by wagon train in the mid-nineteenth century—five thousand square miles in extent, a mile or more underground, sprawling out beneath the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport and under the ranches and small towns of North Texas. Year after year, the Mitchell team toiled away to break the shale code. Their goal was to open up tiny pathways in the dense shale so gas could flow through the rock and into the well. To do that, they applied hydraulic fracturing, later much better known as “fracking,” which uses cocktails of water, sand, gel, and some chemicals injected under high pressure into rocks that would break open tiny pores and liberate the gas. Hydraulic fracturing is a technology that had been developed in the late 1940s and has been commonly used in conventional oil and gas drilling ever since. But here the fracking was being applied not to a conventional reservoir but to the shale itself. Yet time was passing, and much money was being spent, with no commercial results. Criticism mounted inside the company. But when people dared to suggest to Mitchell that his idea would not work, that it was only a “science experiment,” he would say, “This is what we’re going to do.” And since he controlled the company, Mitchell Energy went on fracking in the Barnett, but still with no good result.

By the mid-1990s, the company’s financial position was precarious. Natural gas prices were low. Mitchell Energy cut its spending and slashed its workforce. The company sold The Woodlands for $543 million. When the announcement was passed to him for review, Mitchell jotted, “OK but sad.” He later said, “I hated to sell it.” But he had no choice. The company needed the money. But Mitchell would not bend on shale. One thing that characterized him, as his granddaughter once said, was “stubbornness.” If he had doubts, he kept them to himself.

By 1998, the company had spent a lot of money on the Barnett—as much as a quarter billion dollars. When analysts did forecasts of America’s future natural gas supplies, the Barnett did not even make the list. “All sorts of experienced, educated folks wanted to bail out of the Barnett,” said Dan Steward, one of the believers at Mitchell. “They said we were throwing money away.”

Nick Steinsberger, a thirty-four-year-old Mitchell manager in the Barnett, was not among the skeptics. He was convinced that there had to be a technical solution to commercially produce from shale. Moreover, natural gas prices were low, and he was also trying to bring down the costs of drilling a well. To do that, he had to attack one of the biggest costs—that of guar.

Guar, mostly imported from India, is derived from the guar bean. It is used extensively in the food industry to assure consistency in cakes, pies, ice cream, breakfast cereals, and yogurt. But it has another major use—in fracking, in a Jell-O-like slosh that carries sand into the fractures to expand them. But guar and the related additives were expensive. At a baseball game in Dallas, Steinsberger ran into some other geologists who had successfully replaced much of the guar with water, but in another part of Texas and not in shale. In 1997, he experimented with their water recipe on a couple of shale wells, without success.

Steinsberger got approval for one final try. This was the SH Griffin #4 in Dish. The team was still using water to replace most of the guar, but this time they fed in the sand more slowly. By the spring of 1998, they had the answer. “The well,” said Steinsberger, “was vastly superior to any other well that Mitchell had ever drilled.” The code for shale had been broken.
The new technique needed a name. They didn’t want to just call it “water fracking.” That would have been too prosaic, even boring. So they called it “slick water fracturing.”

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