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Fracking for Dummies

Fracking gets a bad name in the mass media. Activists need only say “frack,” and the entire oil industry is vilified. Man, it must feel good to have that much power!

Seldom do the anti-frack activists have the right concept about fracking. They read each other’s papers, passing misinformation after misinformation along. The petroleum industry just loves this activism. It need only point to the too many errors of the anti-frack message to convince the politicians the activists do not know what they are talking about.

I’ve been wanting to write this article for 10 years. But I would need about 40 to 60 hours to do a good job. My knowledge of fracking is a little weak, so I need to do some research on this topic. Then to reach the people outside the petroleum industry, I would need to include a basic primer of oil/gas flow in sedimentary rock (with lots of illustrations). If I could get my audience to a certain knowledge level, they should be able to see a better balance on fracking.

Unfortunately, I just can’t justify this time investment — especially for my current readership levels. And most likely, the people who need these lessons would prefer to read more of the anti-fracking rhetoric than my work anyways.

So here are my musings, which I hope will take me less than two hours to cobble together. I hope this short brief is useful for more fair-minded people trying to get a handle on this complex economic and environmental issue.

My qualifications to write this article could be better. I graduated in 1982 from the University of Alberta in petroleum engineering. I got a brief exposure to the fracking process with this education. I spent about 15 years in the petroleum industry. However, I have never been on a fracking worksite or designed a frack. But by working around people who do these things, I have learned a few things. I will say that I am more qualified than many of the anti-fracking activists who are getting a lot of attention.

In this article, I will point to places where I have insufficient knowledge. This is where I would need to do some more research.

What is Permeability?

Think of a sponge in your kitchen. Soak it with water. Put it on the counter. Watch the water flow out of the sponge. We say the sponge has “permeability” or an ability to let fluids flow through it. This permeability can be measured. The common measurement is the “millidarcy.” Kitchen sponges have a permeability of about 5000 millidarcies.

Hydrocarbons (oil and natural gas) are mostly stored in sandstone and limestone layers beneath the Earth’s surface. These sedimentary rocks have void spaces, called “pores.” The hydrocarbon occupies these pores. The pores are connected to each other such that the hydrocarbon can flow from one pore to the next. Just like water in a sponge.

When a well is drilled into an oil/gas-bearing sedimentary rock, the well can draw oil and gas from that rock. Unlike a kitchen sponge, these rocks are not that permeable. It takes a lot of time for the hydrocarbons to flow through them. As a general rule, conventional oilfield production for land operations requires a permeability of 10 millidarcies for oil and about 1 millidarcy for gas. Offshore oilfields, with their much higher capital costs, require a permeability of about 200 millidarcies to be economically viable.

What is Fracking?

Fracking is a process to increase the permeability of many oil/gas-bearing sedimentary formations. It has been used since the 1950s. Without fracking, many land-based oilfields and gas fields would not be profitable to exploit.

Fracking is a complex technical process. Fracking involves mixing a liquid with a proppant. That mixture is sent down the well under very high pressures. When this mixture, with its high pressure, hits the hydrocarbon formation, it “fractures” that rock, almost splitting the formation into two parts. The high pressure keeps that fracture open as the liquid/proppant moves into the fracture. At some point, the pumping stops. The pressure is released, and the geological weight works to push the formation back together. But the proppant in the fracture resists being crushed.

The proppant is holding the fracture open. It has a permeability of about 500 millidarcies. Before the frack, the oil in the sedimentary rock had to work its way through 10-millidarcy rock to the wellbore, and maybe had a square meter to pass through. With the fracture, oil from the 10-millidarcy rock feeds into the 500-millidarcy fracture through an area that might be 20 or more square meters. When the oil from the formation reaches the fracture, it flows rather handily through the fracture and to the wellbore. In essence, fracturing increases the flow rate of an oil or gas well. With the increased flow rate, the well becomes profitable to invest in and operate.

Petroleum companies do not do their own fracks. Rather these services are contracted out to “oilfield service companies” who specialize in this technology, like Halliburton. Fracks require a lot of equipment and experienced workers. On many frack sites, maybe $5 million worth of trucks and pumps are assembled and connected. Maybe 10 workers put the equipment together, conduct the frack, and tear the equipment down. Fracking is far from an easy operation.

Fracks also require engineering. Take a balloon. Blow it up. Keep blowing. Keep blowing. Eventually, it blows up. Fracks are similar in that eventually something will blow up. Almost always, it is the hydrocarbon formation that blows up, relieving the pressure on other parts of this big balloon. A good frack design has that breakdown of the formation as its goal.

Another part of the design is to keep the frack within the formation. Fracks that propagate beyond the formation lead to oil and gas escaping into other geological layers — or even maybe saltwater from other formations entering into the fracked formation. A good frack design requires the frack to be big enough to reach into the formation, but not too big to go beyond the formation.

Traditional Fracking

When fracking became popular in the 1950s, it used water as the liquid and special sand as the proppant, usually called “frac sand.” Sometimes carbon dioxide was added to the mixture to help fracture the formation. These were the prime fracking ingredients for many decades.

And in those times, all the wells were vertical. So the wellbore had limited contact with the hydrocarbon formation.

Also since the 1950s, petroleum geologists have known about oil and gas shales. These sedimentary rocks have lots of oil and gas. But they also have a permeability of about 0.01 millidarcies. Even with a frack treatment, these formations would not produce oil or gas at a profitable rate. So for many decades, these “tight” formations were not exploited.

Modern Fracking

In the 1990s, the technology for horizontal drilling matured. Now the wellbore can be built following the formation horizontally through hundreds of meters — instead of a few meters vertically through the formation. This horizontal edge gave more contact between the wellbore and the formation. Higher flow rates resulted. But perhaps more importantly, one horizontal well could drain a formation that would have taken five or more vertical wells.

Then some smart petroleum engineers thought that if a horizontal well could be fracked in several places along that horizontal distance, it just might be possible to get profitable flowrates from the oil and gas shales. So experimentation was done with the oil and gas shales — and horizontal wells — and fracking.

When multiple fracks could be completed for one well, this was when fracking became a villain of the environmental movement.

The Issues with Modern Fracking

Higher Location:

Compared to conventional formations, oil and gas shales are usually higher in the geological stratum, meaning they are closer to the surface. When a frack propagates beyond the hydrocarbon shale formation, the escaping oil, gas, and saltwater can reach groundwaters.

The petroleum company does not want a frack to “get away” from the formation because this means less hydrocarbon to exploit. But fracks do get away from time to time.

Higher Density of Fracks

With traditional vertical fracking, only one frack was done per well. With modern fracking, fracks are created perhaps every 50 meters along the horizontal length. So more fracks in less space. All that fracking pressure has to go somewhere, right?

The anti-frack activists like to tell stories of earthquakes created by fracking operations. Indeed, there have been some small earthquakes shortly after a frack. However, the real truth is that after each frack, the formation is opened back up to the surface, so the excess pressure is relieved within a few minutes of the frack. There is no long-term buildup of pressure because of fracking multiple times.

If there is an earthquake, that formation was probably approaching its tectonic stability — and the frack was just the straw on the camel’s back. Regardless, these frack-induced earthquakes are not Richter 10.0. It is not likely future noticeable earthquakes will follow.

Strange Chemicals

Modern fracks are no longer using water, sand, and carbon dioxide. Fracking into oil and gas shales uses complex chemicals.

These chemicals are mostly designed by oilfield service companies. These companies keep the composition of these chemicals a closely guarded secret, lest some other oilfield service company steals their R&D work. So when groundwater near a shale oilfield is contaminated with a strange chemical, the petroleum company cannot confirm or deny that chemical is theirs — because only the oilfield service company knows what that chemical is — and it won’t give up its trade secrets.

I would like to do some more research on these chemicals.

My latest readings of anti-frack articles suggest these chemicals are becoming better known by the public.

On-the-Edge Engineering

In my petroleum engineering days, designing a frack was kind of like a shotgun blast. We really didn’t know where that frack was going to go. We just knew it would go somewhere — and higher flow rates would result. And we shouldn’t make it too big.

The graphic I pulled for this article is telling a different story. It seems today’s petroleum engineers have better knowledge and are taking their fracks to the limits.

Should we be taking fracks to those limits?

Petroleum Economics

Let us get into the head of a petroleum engineer. Let’s first estimate the cost of a horizontal well through an oil shale at $4 million. This includes geological studies, surface preparations, drilling, and fracking. That money has already been spent or committed. Business analysts call this a “sunk cost.”

The petroleum engineer is now faced with the fracking decision: “Should I use a traditional fracking mixture for about $20,000 or should I use a modern fracking mixture for $60,000? If the modern fracking mixtures get an extra 20 barrels a day (bbl/day) of oil, this comes to extra revenue of about $700,000 in one year. Most of you would spend the extra $40,000 to get that $700,000.

So it’s not hard to see the petroleum industry going for 120 bbl/day instead of 100 bbl/day by spending an extra $40,000. Because the formation is still mostly 0.01 millidarcies, I doubt 100 bbl/day with a traditional frack can turn to 300 bbl/day with a modern frack.

There is another technical consideration for the petroleum engineer. Fracking needs to be done right the first time. If a frack does not produce the expected flow rate, it really cannot be re-fracked to get a better flow rate. This leads to a psychological force placed on the petroleum engineer.

Let’s assume the engineer is environmentally conscious. He chooses the traditional frack mixture over the modern frack mixture. If the flow rate after the frack is expected, the engineer loses no credibility. He did his job.

But if the flow rate is less than expected, he will be held accountable: “Why didn’t you spend another 1% to get a modern treatment?” will be asked by his superiors. If he uses a modern treatment and the flow rate is less than expected, it will be deemed that the formation just could not deliver a higher flow rate. The engineer will not be at fault. With these psychological forces, he is almost forced to use the modern treatment.


Every once in a while, anti-fracking activists manage to convince the politicians to establish a fracking ban in a particular political jurisdiction. This ban usually includes traditional fracking, which is still common and nowhere near as damaging as modern fracking (activists cannot tell the difference). The petroleum industry need only wait for the political climate to change in a few years, and the fracking ban is reversed. The original ban was a hollow victory.

The fracking issue has come to a fight between two extremes. In one corner is the petroleum industry with its vested interests and its political power. In the other corner are the anti-fracking activists who make noise about things they know so little about.

My advice for the activists is to stay away from any talk about earthquakes and all fracks inherently being evil. Study the subject. Investigate when fracking goes bad. Investigate when fracking is responsible. Speak wisely so we can get some responsible regulations in place.

My Ulterior Motive

My few loyal readers know that I usually end my articles with my pitch for my alternative democracy, known as Tiered Democratic Governance (TDG). This time my pitch will be quick.

In the previous section, I posited that fracking has come to choosing between two extremes. Rather than take one or the other, we need something more in the middle. Our current democracy cannot seem to deliver any balance on this issue. Fracking is just more proof that we need a different system of governance.

With the TDG, we will find those regulations that help exploit our current petroleum resources in a profitable and environmentally sound way as we transition away from the petroleum economy. Most petroleum companies will willingly abide by these regulations if there is some common sense to them.

How will the TDG get those wise regulations, you ask? Good question! Here is my quick summary:

1. Elections cannot be bought in the TDG. The petroleum industry cannot buy or be perceived to buy the positions of the higher TDG representatives who will be making the fracking regulations.

2. The TDG elections produce TDG representatives who have demonstrated good character and capacity for governance in the lower tiers.

3. The TDG representatives will be open-minded. They will look at issues from multiple angles. With sufficient consultative discussion, they will reach better decisions than what our current democracy provides.

4. One of those angles could the psychology of the professionals working in the industry.

5. Because the TDG is trusted, its decisions will be trusted. Then society can just let the decision run a natural course. If it is a good decision, great. If not, the TDG representatives will fix it.

Published on Medium 2022

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