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The Boom

How Fracking Changed The World

Russell Gold

60 million years ago America had an enormous shallow ocean between the Rockies and the Appalachians. It covered today's Great Plains, Texas and reached up as far as Pennsylvania. It was paradise for small organisms like zooplankton which sank to the sea floor when they died, creating a thick layer of organic material. Sediments deposited over them formed rock layers that generated pressure and heat, turning the organics into gas and oil - shale rock.

Russia has the Bazhenov Shale - giant oil field in Siberia. There the hydrocarbons in the shale has been squeezed out, migrating up until trapped beneath impermeable rock canopy.

In the past, most wells dug in remote araes. But with shale - in 2013, 15 million Americans lived within a mile of a drilling derrick. In US, mineral rights to the land are superior to the land title - landowner has no control over drilling, and legal cases have established that he simply has to put up with conditions "such as are usual and customary during the drilling of an oil well."

This is a big part of why USA has led the fracking revolution. In many countries the state owns the mineral resources, even though they might lease them to private companies.

Fracking involves pumping high-pressure water down into shale, fracturing the rock and opening small channels for the trapped oil. The sheer amount pumped down means that contaminated water is the industry's biggest product.

Energy systems change when something better and cheaper comes along. Nantucket whalers stopped harpooning when refined petroleum proved a better light source. The glut of cheap gas has undermined the value of renewable energy, but it has also forcing the technology to improve.

In the past oil drilling was highly speculative - wildcatters banked on a 1 in 10 success ratio. By the 1990's modern seismic modelling improved the odds to 90%. Today, frack wells expect 100%. Early prospectors had superstitious belief that drilling was best in cemetaries. In fact, a kernel of truth, since cemetaries often built on highest ground, and that was often an expression of an underground rock fold or salt dome that was trapping oil.

Drillers had experimented with using explosives to shatter rock at the bottom of wells since 1866. In 1967, US Atomic Energy Commission was looking for peaceful uses for atomic bombs. First try was a 29 kiloton bomb 3/4 mile down at Farmington, NM. (Hiroshima bomb was 13 kilotons) The blast worked, but the gas which flowed out was heavily contaminated with radioactive tritium. Next try a 43 kiloton detonation at Rulison, CO, the idea being that the bigger the blast, the more gas would be obtained, improving the economics of the deal. Finally, at Rio Blanco CO, they tried 3 bombs with the aim of creating a joined-up gas chamber. This failed. And when the engineers proposed a 500 kiloton trial, residents revolted.

A quote about the oil business that might apply to others - "These guys have historically run until they fall of the edge of the cliff. You want to push and push right up to the very edge and not go over. Figuring out where the edge is, that's hard."

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