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If fracking has been around since 1947 why should we worry about it now?

In the picture above, dating from 1947, Stanolind Oil conducted the first experimental fracturing in the Hugoton field located in southwestern Kansas. The treatment utilized napalm (gelled gasoline) and sand from the Arkansas River.

But we talking about very different time frames, from then to now. Let's remember that in 1947  there were no environmental regulations, nor are there any reports about air, water or ground contamination figures from that time because they were never done - after all it was not standard to do so. We also need to take cognizance of the fact that the testing technology used today to do more accurate readings was non-existent in 1947 nor in the following two decades there after.

But the oil and gas industry keeps on panting the 1947 as being indicative that fracking has been in use safely since them. In fact that claim is utter bullocks in our opinion, and just the work of the spin-doctors and PR departments of the industry.


Let's keep in mind thou, that Hydraulic Fracturing (Fracking) is just a general type technology used in the oil industry, not unlike explosives used in the mining sector, both can be applied and used in many different ways. And as a result obtain different outcomes.


Let's further be aware that before the rise of the hydraulic fracturing processes, explosives were often used to fracture oil wells (e.g. a string of sticks of dynamite lowered down well). Going back to the example of explosives, blowing up a few rocks in a small quarry is one thing, but using large amounts of explosives each week equivalent to the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima for blowing up large quantity of rock, is something else.

However promoters of fracking for shale gas keep on highlighting the fact that because hydraulic fracturing has been used to some extent since 1947 there cannot be anything to worry about it - it's in their opinion a fully tested process. Although it is a fact that some form of fracking was used, nonetheless we can't compare the first (1000 US gallons) hydraulic fracturing treatment in 1947 to what happens on a current frac-pad exploiting the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania today which more often than not uses up to 50 million US gallons of fracking fluid. It is like comparing a small firework display with dropping a nuclear bomb on a city.

See the table below for comparisons of the volumes of hydraulic fracturing fluid used in fracking over the last 60 years which gives you an idea of some of the differences between 1947 and 2015.

fracking 1949 02


The Rise of Commercial Fracking 

According to a 2010 fracking history by the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE), the idea of non-explosive alternatives to nitroglycerin took root in the 1930s. Experiments through the next decade paved the way for the first industrial-scale commercial uses of the modern patented “Hydrafrac” process in1949, with Halliburton holding an exclusive license in the early years.

SPE recounts that 332 wells were fracked in the first year alone, with up to 75 percent production increases recorded. By the mid-1950s, fracking hit a pace of about 3,000 wells a month.


A typical early fracture took 750 gallons of fluid (water, gelled crude oil, or gelled kerosene) and 400 lbm of sand. By contrast, modern methods can use up to 8 million gallons of water and 75,000 to 320,000 pounds of sand.


Fracking fluids can take the form of foams, gels, or slickwater combinations and often include benzene, hydrochloric acid, friction reducers, guar gum, biocides, and diesel fuel. Likewise, the hydraulic horsepower (hhp) needed to pump fracking material has risen from an average of about 75 hhp in the early days to an average of more than 1,500 hhp today, with big jobs requiring more than 10,000 hhp.

Fracking’s new golden age began in 2003, as oil and gas producers began to explore the nation’s massive shale formations in earnest. Today companies are extracting more oil and gas than they can ship.

While the details are not really important, it can be seen that the size of a typical hydraulic fracturing treatment on a conventional oil or gas well (which are only used on some wells) has grown by around a factor of 60 since fracking was first used in the late 1940s.


The other major point to take notice off, is that even the modern day fracking of conventional wells pales into insignificance compared to the fracking treatments used to extract shale gas over the last few years. The initial tests in the Barnett Shale in the 1980’s were using fracking treatments with an order of magnitude larger that typical fracking of conventional wells and this had risen to almost 100 times larger by the time serious commercial production began just over a decade ago.

The huge multi-well pads (10 or more wells per pad) that are now becoming common in shale gas exploitation involve another order of magnitude again concentrating the equivalent of 1000 conventional fracking treatments into a small area. Comparing photographs of the first fracking test in 1947 with those of a modern fracking pad in the US gives some idea of the increased intensity of operations.


The volume of the fracking fluid used is but one aspect of the operational processes, and in reality the intensity of shale gas fracking operations are even higher that just comparing fluid volumes would suggest.


The pressures used in fracking treatments have also risen and it is now not uncommon for pressures of 15,000 pounds per square inch (psi) to be used in modern shale gas fracking (around the pressure at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, the deepest part of the worlds oceans, almost 7 miles below sea level).

Given these sorts of pressures along with the volumes of fluid involved (10 Olympic swimming pools worth per well) a question that springs to mind is how much energy is involved.

The answer: a 10 well frac-pad is equivalent to a 4.4 kiloton nuclear bomb going off underground.

When you realize this it is not at all surprising that these operations are resulting in numerous earthquakes. Chemically, fracking has also intensified enormously. While the gelled petroleum products initially used were certainly quite toxic they were at least relatively simple, with few ingredients. Modern slick-water fracking in contrast usually involves a whole cocktail of products most of which are made up of many ingredients.

The fracking industry in the US is believed to use over 2500 fracking products that contain over 750 different chemicals including breakers, corrosion inhibitors, crosslinkers, gels, oxygen scavengers, pH adjusting agents, scale inhibitors and surfactants. The shear number of different chemicals involved combined with the huge fluid volumes makes problems with toxicity pretty much inevitable.

In conclusion, the amount of times that the fracking process has actually been used has changed vastly over the last 60 years.Initially fracking was only used on a limited set of marginal wells where the extra simulation could increase production rates to an economic level.

The fraction of conventional wells that recieve some sort of fracking treatment has certainly increase over time, particularly for natural gas wells, again in part reflecting an increased difficultly in extracting these fossil fuels.


The introduction of shale gas extraction however has introduced a class of wells where all of them are fracked.


Due to the nature of shale gas extraction, where wells have to coat an area in order to extract the gas, the number of wells drilled is also much higher than for conventional gas. It is also the case that with shale gas extraction, there is a much higher likelihood that wells will be re-fractured several times over their short lifetimes, to try to prop up production until they are abandoned.

The combination of these effects has resulted in an explosion in the amount of hydraulic fracturing over the last decade with the global market growing by almost a factor of five. The combination of the massive growth in both the amount and intensity of hydraulic fracturing treatments is increasing its impacts enormously. This video of a shale gas fracking operation in the US gives some idea of what the impact of just the process itself can have on a community.


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