Hydraulic Fracturing: Stimulating U.S. Oil Production for Over 65 Years

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) announced that oil production volumes for the week ending September 13 totaled 7.827 million barrels of oil per day, the highest levels since May of 1989. This was made possible by the increased use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracing), primarily on privately owned lands in Texas and North Dakota.

This increase in U.S. oil production is a continuation of a trend begun in 2009, when oil companies applied the techniques previously used in the production of shale gas to the production of oil.

Fracing for oil is a rare story of entrepreneurial and industrial achievement in what has been an otherwise dreary post-2008 economy. But media coverage of this achievement has seldom been positive, and many people upon first hearing about the technology have reacted with distrust and even fear, while others have promoted the idea that fracing is an untried, unpracticed, and untested technology.

The claim that fracing is a fundamentally new and poorly understood oil industry practice begins to fall apart when examined critically. Just ask: How did the billions of dollars in infrastructure, and equipment, and the specialized technical expertise necessary to drill and fracture thousands of oil wells a year in the United States, simply materialize within a few months of 2009?

The answer of course is that it didn’t. The recent engineering breakthrough in how we produce oil is the just the latest in a sixty-five year history of increasing reliance on hydraulic fracturing.

To illustrate this point, I’ll refer you the Petroleum Science Textbook Hydraulic Proppant Fracturing and Gravel Packing, which was published in May of 1989 (the same date that modern hydraulic fracturers recently equaled in oil production.). Within its pages the author dedicated a few paragraphs to the rate at which fracing had been adopted by industry, starting with the first recorded uses on vertical wells in 1947 through 1949.

The book continues by noting that during the 1950s, companies began to use hydraulic fracturing approximately 3,000 times per month in the United States, reaching a decade high of nearly 4,500 per month in 1955. So successful was the technology that by 1955, more than 100,000 operations had been performed throughout the world.

In the mid-1960s hydraulic fracturing was the primary method of stimulating wells, with the number of fracture treatments exceeding half a million by 1968.

During the mid-1970s to the late 1980s massive hydraulic fracturing (MHF) became popular. The amount of fluid and sand used in these treatments increased from thousands to millions of gallons. This increased volume resulted in increased costs, incentivizing research into design and modeling in an effort to optimize the now common method of stimulating well production by hydraulic fracturing. The result was rapid advances in seismic imaging, geo-mechanical modeling, rock mechanics, fluid design, and knowledge of fracture geometry.

By the time the textbook was published in 1989, nearly one million hydraulic fracture treatments had been performed worldwide, with “35-40% of all the wells that are drilled and completed” being hydraulically fractured.

In the decades since the publication of this textbook, innovators have improved the technology dramatically, and added hundreds of publications, journal articles, and textbooks to the scientific literature. The ability to fracture horizontal wellbores (one of the essential elements in today’s fracing process) has become common, while innovation in mechanical engineering now allows for increased precision in the placement of fractures.

The number of hydraulic fracturing treatments conducted today tallies in the millions, while the men and women of the industry routinely complete tens of thousands of frac stages (intervals within a well that are selectively fractured) every year.

There have been recent innovations in the fracing process that have been critical to today’s oil boom. But this should not overshadow the fact that fracing is one of the most studied, practiced, and enduring oil and gas production methods ever created.