The Sage Grouse

What is all this frackin’ nonsense?

My introduction to hydraulic fracturing was relatively benign. As the floor hand on Chuck Eivtt’s workover rig in an old oil field south of LaBarge,Wyoming, I neither knew anything nor needed to. My dirty job, wearing several layers of insulated clothing and cheap snowmobile boots, was to stand on the rig floor, work the tongs, unscrew the sucker rods and tubing, and get everything out of the hole on schedule. After we pulled the rods and tubing, bolted some valves on the well head, tested the blowout preventer and pulled tricks which would make Mitt Romney’s college hazing look like beginner’s practice, we would retire to the dog house to eat and smoke. Everyone smoked, but not on the rig.

One of our favorite tricks was to whipsaw the drill pipe to try to knock the derrick hand off his feet. As he was wearing a safety harness, we didn’t have to worry about him falling 50 feet onto my head, and besides, he started it. We pulled 2-and-7/8 tubing out of the hole in 2-joint, 60-foot stands. I would unscrew every other 30 foot joint with power tongs and the driller would lift the two joints a few feet and I would hold the pipe and push it over to the side to stack it on huge wooden pads. As I was doing that, the derrick hand, 22 years old and father of two, would shake the top of the sixty-foot stand of pipe. The whiplash effect would sometimes knock my 19 year old self off my feet. However, the same process worked in reverse, so we had contests to see who could put the other one on his ass.  The driller (the crew supervisor) looked the other way. The toolpusher (the boss for the rig company) looked the other way. The “company man,” who worked for Texaco, which owned the lease, did not look the other way. Butts got chewed and the whiplash game stopped. I wonder how much of this still happens.

The lease owners were converting wells from oil to gas producers. This process required removal of pump rods and tubing, plugging off the deep oil zone, perforating the casing in the gas zone, hydraulic fracturing, swabbing out the bore, replacing the tubing and putting the well on production. When we had everything pulled out of the well, the toolpusher would call Halliburton, which would send a huge fleet of trucks to the well. Some trucks were platforms for several-thousand-horsepower pumps. Others carried tanks for mixing frack fluids. Others carried tons of supplies and still others carried enough pipe to connect China toTaiwan.

When they arrived we had to exit the propane-heated dog house and help the Halliburton hands (we didn’t see Dick Cheney) hook up all of the pipes to connect several pump trucks and several tank trucks together to send everything into the well. Then we went back to the dog house while the Halliburton guys did their thing. When they were done, out we came to disassemble everything and put it back on the trucks.

The next day we came out, opened the valves AFTER testing the blowout preventer, and swabbed all of the leftover water/fluid out of the well into a temporary pit, then piped the gas to a flare and lit the flare to burn off the gas until we had all of the fluid out and were ready to put the gas into a pipeline.

Mule deer were on the locations every morning. Wild horses were just down the road. None of them cared that we were there. As long as you don’t hit them on the roads they will be okay.

We were doing these frac jobs in 1971. Fracking has been a commonly accepted oil and gas procedure for many decades. Not any more. France has banned the practice. Eastern European countries, desperately dependent upon Russian gas derived from hydraulically-fractured gas fields, are nonetheless about to perpetuate their servitude by following the French example. There is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow but if you leave it buried, the pot does no one any good.

Hydraulic fracturing is the best antidote to OPEC anyone has invented. It creates jobs, tax revenues, royalties for private and government owners and a stimulus to American manufacturing. Economists note that a persistent problem with economic recovery in this country is a shortage of revenue for state and local governments, which are forced to lay off public employees. Domestic oil and gas production can generate huge revenues for local governments, revenues that are now going to overseas producers.

Yeah, yeah, blah, say my friends, we see this stuff on TV when the America’s Natural Gas Alliance, Conoco, BP and Exxon buy ads. Yeah, well, say I, it’s still true.

So the question is, does injecting water, gum, solvents, sand and potassium chloride into generally impermeable shales 6,000 to 10,000 feet below the surface do something really bad?

Much is made of the disclosure of the chemicals in frack fluids. I do not know why Halliburton is so worried about the disclosure and I don’t know why the environmental groups are so obsessed with this issue. It appears that if someone wants to hide the pea, that means the pea is radioactive, and therefore the watchdogs must find it. The pea is nothing, folks. Fracturing formations requires a lot of water, some thickening agents like gum, sand to prop open the cracks, occasionally solvents like benzene and toluene (commonly used in shops and garages, but of course one should not drink it), and sometimes diesel fuel.  Diesel is an excellent solvent for cleaning and other uses. It is commonplace. Don’t drink it. But the fact that diesel is used for fracturing should not be alarming.

These chemicals can be toxic if they show up in your drinking water, of course. If companies are sloppy when they dispose of recovered frack fluids, public water supplies can be contaminated. Sloppy disposal of frack fluids which are swabbed out of wells would be negligent, stupid and in my view felonious. Frack fluids do contain things which are not good for you, and reckless disposal of such fluids should be punished, severely.

But the big controversy about fracking does not revolve around negligent practices once the fluid is sucked out of the well and sent to disposal; the controversy which worries so many people is manufactured: people who understand nothing about geology and engineering perpetuate the myth that fracking shales at 8,000 to 10,000 feet down will contaminate public water supplies which are usually found at depths of less than 1,000 feet.

Thick steel pipe is used to case wells before any hydraulic fracturing begins. Tons and tons of cement are used to seal the gaps around the pipe. Layers and layers of dense impervious rock separate the Marcellus Shale or the Niobrara or the Bakken from the sandstone and limestone layers from which people pump drinking water. Neither a Vesuvius eruption nor a Japanese tsunami would change scientific fact. But the EPA can wave its regulatory trump-card wand and turn science into a political kaleidoscope.

Many environmental groups want the EPA to regulate fracking. Time will tell.

Just about all of my clients hate the EPA. Many of my friends do not understand why I too have strong negative feelings about the EPA, but I have seen too much disproportionate harsh enforcement actions first hand. I guess if one wants the EPA to shut down drilling, or coal plants, then the EPA’s stance, from their perspective, is “based on good science.” Unfortunately, basing policy on good science is often more politicized than it is scientific.

The Interior Department is beefing up its regulations of fracking on federal lands. My editor wants me to participate in a discussion of the  proposed new rules, so that will be Part II of this commentary. The review of the new rules in the Federal Register is filled with reassurances that the new rules will not hamper or slow industry activity, but this much is clear already: that is hype. More details to follow.

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  1. Well done RT Cox! Environmental criers will reject your sound explanation, but honest inquisitors can learn much here.

    What could help explain would be a detailed graphic cutaway of a well casing for the slow learners.

    Thanks for this 😀

  2. Some lively dialogue is going on here. Speaking of Drake, one of my aunts contended that our family was descended from Lord Baltimore and Sir Francis Drake. Two branches of the family found wealth in oil in Pennsylvania (Drake) and Louisiana (McIlhenny). The third branch, mine, did not.

    In response to my smart remark about radioactive peas, Mr. Garrett asked a question. I have spoken with engineers at the Wyoming Oil and Gas Commission and oil companies which drill horizontal wells. Radioactive isotopes are not blended with frac fluids. Isotopes with short half-lives, comparable to those used for human bone scans, are used for well logging. Measuring gamma rays from isotopes can gauge the distance that fractures in a formation extend from the well bore. For example, in the Niobrara formation in Wyoming, a sequential frac job from a mile-long horizontal bore might extend 200 feet vertically and 1,000 feet horizontally within the shale. It is rare, I am told, but some companies pump sand with isotopes into the fissures and then use a tool to log the pulses from the radionuclides. See for detailed explanations. I am getting an education.

    Just in case there might be confusion, it’s disclosure time: “RTC” is “The Sage Grouse”, and RTC’s day job is as an attorney representing landowners, oil and gas companies, uranium companies and mineral owners.

  3. RTC — Thanks for the reply and exchange of ideas.
    Trucks are hauling fracturing fluids and components and they are doing so for a specific purpose. It is not logical to think that absent that purpose that the trucks would be used for an equivalent amount of miles and trips while hauling “coal, acid, ethanol.” Thus accident statistics have everything to do with oil and gas, particularly when, as the NY Times story reports, workers are required to drive after working extended shifts.
    You made it absolutely clear that you think improper disposal is reprehensible. My point is that like any other waste, there really is no risk free disposal technique for fracturing fluid. Some communities in the northeast even see fracturing fluid treatment as an economic resource opportunity. We should all be more mindful of waste and the consequence of its production and disposal.
    I know you are not an advocate of improper workplace behavior and I know the companies discourage that too. But you do point out that once you were very young. Close and consistent supervision must be a mandate. I know some companies do this very well, others not so well.
    Finally, please don’t take my observations as reason to “shut down an industry”. Natural gas production when done right provides many benefits to the state and nation while off-setting some of the problems associated with other energy resources. The technology, process, and implementation of hydraulic fracturing (as is the case with any energy production and use) should be transparent and made as safe and reliable as possible. We as energy consumers should be mindful and careful about our energy choices — we owe that to future generations.

  4. Well, if all the mojo used in fracking is relatively harmless, then why are the companies doing a fullcourt lobbying press, drawing lines in the sand , and going to war to prevent disclosing the recipes ? Does this not shout ” We’ve got something to hide here “….? It does to me. Just because they have been fracking since the Truman administration does not give the industry carte blanche approval by default.

    Let’s do a quick poll : Do you trust the oil and gas companies to come clean ? Y [___] N [___]

  5. Hand in hand with disclosure of the chemicals used in hydralic fracking, needs to be standards for well integrity. There are two reasons the issue is the news forefront. One is Wyoming’s DEQ and Oil and Gas Commission failure to intervene and do their duty in the Clark’s Fork and Pavillion area excursions of drilling and fracking fluids as they affected local water supplies. I have met some of the most affected and they were not fans of the Feds and the EPA, but Wyoming failed them. Second is the boom in PA and NY with the Marcellus Shale gas. Good ‘ol boys from Texas and Oklahoma set loose in the northeast without the locals knowing what these boys would do with all their nasty gunk and no real oil field regulation since Drake have set loose a public relations diaster that API might not fix. These are not classic deep Rocky Mountain tight formations, instead roll and fold like a jelly roll in true Appalacian mountain style…push here and it comes out in the next holler.

  6. Responding to Mr. Garrett: Traffic accidents could and would happen if the trucks hauling frac fluids were instead hauling something else, like coal, acid or ethanol; traffic safety statistics have little to do with oil and gas practices.
    See “” for a list of chemicals which are used in fracturing, many of which are common salts and solvents, and things like acetic acid (vinegar). Isotopes are sometimes used for logging, but there are no isotopes that I know about which are used in frac fluids.
    I made the point that irresponsible disposal of produced fluids is reprehensible.
    I thought I made the point that misbehavior on the well site needs to be prohibited too.
    A few stupid incidents do not constitute a reason to shut down an industry, but continuing to push for best practices is always a good, even necessary, idea.

    The Sage Grouse

  7. You’re right, there is nothing to worry about…aside from the apparent likelihood that highly technical fracturing jobs are being performed by 19 year olds, and that the ‘thick’ pipe you mention might not be thick enough, and that up to 1200 truck trips* are required to haul all of the water and supplies to every fracturing site, and that upwards of a million gallons of contaminated fluid need to be treated and thrown away (remembering, there is no away), and that a Duke University study found conclusive evidence of groundwater contamination by methane in the Marcellus Shale play.
    For my self and to serve my responsibility to future generations, I want to know what all of this looks like and make a mindful decision about where my energy comes from and how I use it. So I definitely want to know where/what the ‘pea’ is and where it will end up. By the way, apparently many of the trade secret formulations used in hydraulic fracturing that are hidden by rule from public scrutiny by the Wyoming Oil and Gas Commission are radioactive. Perhaps you were closer to the truth than you glibly imagined.

    *P.S. today, the NY Times reports that it is on the truck trips that workers are most likely to be injured or killed, not on the rigs themselves (your hijinks notwithstanding).