The Technology Behind the Frack

Yesterday, the bipartisan Marcellus Shale Caucus held a hearing on the Hill which delved into the technology behind shale gas development. The two presenters represented the technical side of the industry: Dr. Peter Duncan, founder of MicroSeismic, Inc., and Rich Downey, Completions Manager of EOG Resources, a US independent producer.

Producers usually use the technology of microseismic monitoring on the first few wells on a given field in order to fully understand the structure and complexities of the shale rock. The purpose of microseismic monitoring is to give the engineers and geophysicists the exact location of where the fracture or a “fracjob” took in the shale rock. Dr. Duncan described the way microseismic monitoring works as a “stethoscope on the face of the earth.”

Essentially, the geophones, which are typically drilled vertically into the ground, pick up on the waves from the “pops” or breaks from the fractured shale, which release the same amount of energy as a person dropping a can of soda to the floor. Contrary to what enviros would have you fear, this is not the kind of energy that would conceivably cause an earthquake. Targeting these waves reveals exactly where the frack took place (See above picture).

As Rich Downey of EOG explained, companies use microseismic monitoring because the health of a well depends upon containing the fractures within the “zone of interest.”

Let me spell this out. There is no natural permeability in shale. Permeability (whether natural or man-made) is necessary for the extraction of oil and natural gas. Hydraulic fracturing, by blasting water, sand, and a small amount of chemicals into the rock, creates permeability in the rock.

Pressure is absolutely necessary. If the fractures creep even 50-100 feet outside of the zone of interest into a fault line or other point of weakness, which is less compact than the tight shale, the pressure will be lost and thus the chance for permeability and gas extraction will be lost. If the microseismic monitoring reveals the impacts of the fractures are outside of the zone of interest, the company would immediately shut down the fracjob. In other words, the well will be rendered useless.

When drilling opponents say that hydraulic fracturing causes groundwater contamination, it is clear they misunderstand — or misrepresent — the technology which proves otherwise. The horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing typically occurs 7000 feet below any viable groundwater. The frack occurs within 100 feet in the shale rock. As Downey demonstrated, the well will be ruined if the fractures extend even 50 feet outside of the zone of interest – let alone 7000 feet – the length of four and a half Empire State Buildings—above to the groundwater. Not to mention, the groundwater is additionally protected with cement casing.

The oil and gas industry has historically been reluctant to delve into the complicated technical prodcedures and explain them to the public. Clearly, it’s difficult. However, thankfully, the industry now recognizes their responsibility to educate the public on the safe practices of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. This Marcellus Shale Caucus briefing is a perfect example of the kind of education the industry should continue to focus on. After hearing these presentations, it’s impossible not to be floored by cutting-edge technology of the oil and natural gas industry. It truly reenforces the safety of the process. (After all, it’s in the industry’s interest for it to be safe and for their wells to be functioning.)It’s also hard not to question if the environmentalists have taken a second to learn about the technology behind shale gas development…or if they even want the public’s fears to be dispelled.

Too much is at stake for the country in terms of economic growth, energy security, and American jobs for the industry not to educate the public on this technology. The industry must get past the talking points and delve into the difficult geophysics and technology behind shale gas development in order to truly dispel the public’s fears. After all, if the oil and gas industry is successful — as Bloomberg noted today —“Shale Gas Reserves Could Reignite the U.S. Economy.”