Breakthrough: The Accidental Discovery That Revolutionized American Energy

One day in 1997, while supervising a well in north Texas, a group of geologists made a small mistake that would help change the future of fracking.
Reuters

The dramatic changes to the nation’s energy outlook are as surprising as they are clear. Seven years ago, oil production was in steep decline and natural gas nearly as hard to find. Today, the United States produces over 7.7 million barrels of oil a day, up over 50% since 2006 and the most in nearly 25 years. The nation could pump more than eleven million barrels a day by 2020. The U.S. is on track to pass Russia as the world’s largest energy producer and should have enough gas to last generations.

The wildcatters responsible for the transformation are as unexpected as the energy surge they produced. These men, operating on the fringes of the oil industry and often without backgrounds in geology or engineering, met success drilling and hydraulic fracturing extremely dense shale, a process that’s become known as fracking.

George Mitchell is the father of the energy revolution. His impact eventually could approach that of Henry Ford. Mitchell and his team weren’t out to change history, though. They just wanted to keep their company alive.

'Time Was Running Out'

It was early 1997 and Mitchell Energy was sending huge amounts of natural gas each day from its Texas fields to a pipeline serving the city of Chicago. For decades, the arrangement provided the com­pany with steady profits, helping George Mitchell, the son of a poor Greek goatherd, become wealthy.

But Mitchell Energy’s gas reserves were declining, its shares were falling and time was run­ning out for the seventy-eight-year-old executive.

Mitchell’s best bet was to unlock gas from shale, a dense rock deep below Mitchell Energy’s acreage in North Texas. Larger rivals, such as Exxon and Chevron, already had shuttered operations drilling in challenging shale, however, all but giving up on the country.

The United States was running on empty, just like Mitchell Energy. A growing dependence on foreign energy pressured the country into costly foreign entanglements, such as the invasion of Iraq seven years earlier. The U.S. would have to rely on foreign energy, it seemed, as Russia and other nations with vast energy re­sources assumed greater power.

Mitchell had begun to cede control of his company, handing the job of president to a former Exxon veteran, Bill Steven, who was no fan of shale drilling. Stevens told board members that much of the Barnett Shale field, where the company was focusing, was “moose-pasture land” unfit for exploration. Stevens grew visibly frustrated when George Mitchell discussed plans to expand shale drilling.

One day, Kent Bowker, a newly hired senior geologist working on the Barnett project, walked to a break room in the company’s headquarters to buy a can of Coca-Cola. When he saw Stevens, Bowker got excited and began speaking about their plans to drill in shale.

Stevens stuck his hand in Bowker’s face. “Stop right there,” Stevens said, cutting Bowker off. You better find some other area to spend time on, Stevens told him.

Pressure shifted to a soft-spoken engineer named Nicholas Steinsberger, who looked younger than his thirty-one years. Steinsberger, who ran the fracking effort in the Barnett, worked with his colleagues to blast the Texas rock with different liquids and gels, hoping to create pathways for trapped gas to escape.

Nothing worked, though. Once upbeat and optimistic, Mitchell turned frustrated with his team. After another failed well, he cursed and ranted.

One day in 1997, while supervising a well in the Barnett region, Steinsberger noticed that the gel and chemicals that were part of their fracking fluid weren’t mixing properly. A contractor was pumping a substance that was more of a liquid than the thicker, Jell-O-like substance normally used to fracture the rock and open its pores so gas could flow.

The well’s results were surprisingly good, though. Steinsberger began to wonder if a watery mix might be able to fracture this tough, compressed rock.

A few weeks later, Steinsberger went to an industry outing at a Texas Rangers baseball game. Over barbecue and beer, he chatted with Mike Mayerhofer, a friend who worked for a rival called Union Pacific Resources. Mayerhofer told Steinsberger that his company was drilling in a different kind of rock using a frack­ing mix composed mainly of water. They had added a small amount of polymers to reduce the water’s surface friction and act as a lubricant so it moved faster.

Steinsberger was intrigued; Meyerhofer’s company wasn’t drilling in shale, which was extra-tough rock. But their concoction reminded Steinsberger of Mitchell’s earlier well that produced some gas relying on that faulty, extra-watery fracking fluid. Steinsberger returned to Mitchell’s headquarters determined to use more water on Mitchell’s shale wells. Because the fluid was mostly water that was slickened with some polymers, Steinsberger and his colleagues named the new method “slick water” fracturing.

'It's a Stupid Idea. It's Not Going to Work.'

Most everyone thought Steinsberger was out of his mind. You can’t pour so much water on shale, they told him. Shale has clay in it. It’s almost like hardened mud. Adding more water would create an awful mess.

“It’s a stupid idea,” Steven McKetta, a Mitchell petroleum engineer and the company’s fracking guru. “It’s not going to work.”

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