New technology makes fracking profitable despite protests and low oil prices

James Fenton
The Daily Times

The technological process of hydraulic fracturing, better known as "fracking," is used in most drilling operations in basins across the country.

Fracking is the process of pumping at high pressure a mix of millions of gallons of water, and millions of pounds of fine sand and added chemicals often a mile underground - and with advances in horizontal drilling - a mile across to crack open rock formations to release oil and gas. The well casing at the end of the hole is perforated using jet perforation guns that have "pure energy" charges that can blast holes 40 inches long in designated areas deep underground. Each perforation stage takes around three hours with three employees working 12-hour shifts nonstop until the fracking operation is completed two or three days later. Fracking fluid is forced into the blasted holes, which causes fractures in the rock.

WPX Energy fracks wells in the San Juan Basin with a combination of 70 percent nitrogen and 30 percent water.

During a fracking operation, liquid nitrogen is warmed and turns to gas. Later placed under pressure, the slurry turns to foam, which carries sand down the well bore to wedge the cracks in the rock formation. Chemicals including bleach-like biocides to kill bugs and others that prevent pipe corrosion or to help stabilize the fracking foam are added.

Susan Alvillar, WPX spokeswoman, said that chemicals are a minute component of what goes deep in the ground when drilling for oil and gas.

"Chemicals are just a small part of what we need to make these operations happen out here," she said.

Lower pressure wells and the scarcity of water in the area make the decision to use chemicals in the process necessary, said Kent Hejl, WPX drilling supervisor.

"Instead of using a bunch of fresh water to frack, they choose to use the 70-quality foam jobs," Hejl said. "It's more expensive to do it that way, but it's one of those unfortunate expenses of working out in the high desert where there's not a lot of water available."

The use of automated instrumentation and the latest equipment are making drilling for oil in the San Juan Basin profitable despite the fact that crude oil prices have dropped to half of what they were last year.

Dissolvable plugs are the latest in the arsenal of new technologies that are reducing the time needed for oil and gas drilling operations, which means less starting and stopping between fracking operations, Alvillar said. On average, it takes crews two and a half days to remove plugs and clean the well bore for continued completion work.

The specialized equipment makes well completion techniques more affordable.

Alvillar said a computer program called Cygnet has increased the degree that well managers can oversee drilling operations in multiple basins from a single remote location.

Hejl said that computer data collection using SCADA, or supervisory control and data acquisition, systems has dramatically improved efficiency in the oil field, providing technicians the ability to have up-to-the-minute information - and more of it - from any location. The technology has been around for decades, but the range and depth of detail has improved in recent years, Hejl said.

"We have an excess of 4,000 wells in the Piceance Basin (in northwest Colorado), and (the requirements of having) someone to physically go out, plug a computer in and the manpower to do that process would be crazy," he said. "If a guy has 50 wells to check, they're not going to get a lot done. As technology advances, manpower reduction and efficiency increases, (and it) gives control and the ability to do stuff just sitting at your desk looking at a screen."

Field technicians in Aztec, Alvillar said, don't have an office. They work out of their trucks outfitted with laptop computers to check on wells they monitor remotely and travel to ones that need maintenance.

Each fracking operation is really a series of multiple fracks done in stages. In each stage, each well undergoes a fracking stage five to 20 times and each stage on average uses about 3,500 barrels of water, Alvillar said. Fracking with nitrogen in the San Juan Basin reduces that amount, she said.

The site of a fracking operation in July just north of Lybrook near Chaco Culture National Historical Park looks like a circling of wagons.

About 50 workers and lots of equipment - from oversized trucks with tanks holding large stores of nitrogen, sand and water, along with trailers and other trucks carrying piping, compressors, massive engines to establish stimulation pressure of around 7,000 pounds per square inch and other drilling equipment - circle around the well bore in advance of a fracking operation.

And the industry is circling the wagons in another sense in the face of campaigns that have been mounted against fossil fuels because of their contribution to greenhouse gases and environmental and cultural concerns.

In the Chaco Canyon area, environmental groups have sued the federal government for permitting drilling by the industry in the belief that oil and gas extraction is polluting the environment, risking human health and desecrating cultural artifacts and areas of cultural concern like Chaco Culture National Historic Park.

In August, a federal judge struck down a lawsuit filed by 11 environmental and conservation groups to try to stop the Bureau of Land Management from issuing new permits to drill and frack in the area as the agency is updating decades-old rules that regulates the industry.

The groups delivered anti-fracking petitions to U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and Congressman Ben Ray Luján, all New Mexico Democrats, to appeal to state lawmakers to help stop the agency from granting permits to drill in the Mancos Shale formation around the Chaco area.

Kyle Tisdel, a Taos-based climate and energy program director at the Western Environmental Law Center, which provided legal help to the parties in the lawsuit, said the ruling sends the message that the economic benefits from the industry outweigh the health and safety of the people and land around Chaco.

"Judge Browning ruled ... that continued unstudied shale oil development is more important than the health of Greater Chaco communities and the area's priceless cultural resources," Tisdel said in a statement. "This decision is wrong for the people of Greater Chaco, and illustrates how some truly believe Greater Chaco is a 'sacrifice zone' to be exploited and thrown away."

Alvillar defends fracking and considers herself a "true believer" in the methods WPX employs to drill for oil and gas.

"It's clean, it's noisy, of course, but it's clean and organized," she said of fracking. "If it's not grown, it must be mined. If it doesn't come out of the ground as a plant, it has to be extracted. We are doing it safely and we are regulated by multiple agencies and what we do is safe. It's just what we do."

Alvillar said that fracking makes supplying America's energy needs possible and safe, using the latest technology in a highly regulated industry.

"Without hydraulically fracturing this formation, which is denser than concrete, it would not commercially produce oil or gas and our country uses oil and gas ... for everything that touches our daily lives," Alvillar said. "These fracture jobs are highly engineered and the technology is there to safely do it without hurting the environment or people. Our contractors and our people every day think about how to do things cleaner, safer and faster."

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.