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How An Engineer's Desperate Experiment Created Fracking


Last week, NPR's Planet Money team got into the oil business. They bought and sold a hundred barrels of crude oil, following it from a field in Kansas to someone's gas tank. The oil business has changed a lot in the last decade, mostly because of fracking or hydraulic fracturing. Planet Money's Stacey Vanek Smith tracked down the man who invented fracking as we know it today.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Back in 1995, Nick Steinsberger was 31. He was working for an oil company called Mitchell Energy. And he had just gotten a promotion. He was put in charge of an area called the Barnett Shale. It was in central Texas. And the company had a bunch of natural gas wells there. A couple of months in, management called him in for a meeting.

NICK STEINSBERGER: The Barnett was failing. It was not an economic venture. And we probably were not going to be doing it much longer.

SMITH: So a couple of months after you got promoted here, they were like, we think we're probably going to shut this down.


SMITH: Nick was desperate. He and his wife had a new baby. And Nick was worried if he lost this job, he would not be able to find another one.

STEINSBERGER: You know, over the next days, you know, at night - and, you know, thinking, well, what can I do? Well, you can become more efficient and cost-saving.

SMITH: Little trims here and there.

STEINSBERGER: Yeah. That's right.

SMITH: It cost almost a million dollars to drill a well in the Barnett Shale. You had to drill down a couple of miles to this incredibly dense rock. And then you had to blast it apart with this white gel and then collect the natural gas.

And Nick thought he knew just where to trim in this process, the gel. It was made up of all of these chemicals. And nearly half the cost of drilling a well came from this gel.

So just like a bar might water down the cocktails to save a little money, Nick started watering down the gel - little more water, little less chemical mix.

STEINSBERGER: So I was - keep on reducing those amount of gel - amount of chemicals we were pumping - just making small tweaks every week or two.

SMITH: To Nick's surprise, the watered-down gels produced just as much natural gas as the regular gel wells. So Nick kept adding more water and more water. And then Nick had this radical idea. Cut out the gel entirely and just pump water into the rock plus a little bleach to kill the bacteria and a little soap to help the water flow down the pipes.

Now, this was risky. The shale had a lot of clay in it. And everyone thought if you pumped too much water down there, the clay would swell up, and no gas would come out. But if it worked, the Barnett Shale would be profitable. And Nick's job would be saved. So he convinced Mitchell Energy to let him try.

So about 20 years ago today, you were driving up, as we are right now, to this well to see if your idea had worked.

STEINSBERGER: That's right.

SMITH: The well is near Justin, Texas. It is still running. And Nick remembers the chilly morning in June when he showed up here to try out his idea. Equipment and giant rigs were everywhere.

But his eyes were glued to one thing, a pressure gauge. It would tell him how much natural gas was coming into the pipe - how productive the well would be. Nick pumped 800,000 gallons of water down the well and waited.

And what did you see?

STEINSBERGER: We saw the pressure was going up and up and up and up. And we were excited.

SMITH: So the pressure valve was like the modern version of a gusher.

STEINSBERGER: I guess so, yeah. (Laughter) Yeah.

SMITH: The well fracked with water was almost twice as productive as the gel-fracked well - twice as productive and half as expensive. The technique was tried on oil wells. And the same thing happened. Hydraulic fracking was born. Twenty years later, the U.S. is the biggest oil and natural gas producer on the planet.

GARY SERNOVITZ: It made us a player in the global oil market again, which we weren't for a hundred years.

SMITH: Gary Sernovitz is the author of "The Green And The Black." He says this moment at this well in central Texas had an impact that was almost unimaginable.

SERNOVITZ: 2004 to 2014 - about 400,000 jobs are added. There's a couple trillion dollars of additional wealth of these reserves. That foreign policy - when you think about Iran and Russia and Saudi Arabia. And you think about all these kind of big decisions in the Middle East. These are all now being done without the United States fearing, being dependent on oil and gas imports.

SMITH: Of course, there is another side to fracking. There have been huge problems with some of the drill sites, contaminated water and earthquakes. Also fracking increased the supply of oil and pushed down the price, which means we're less likely to explore alternatives. Nick Steinsberger says he has heard all of this.

STEINSBERGER: You know, fracking is misunderstood. This country is so much better off with the shale boom - the amount of jobs, the amount of economic revenue, the security for our own country.

SMITH: Shortly after Nick's fracking innovation, Mitchell Energy was acquired by a larger company. Nick's boss became a billionaire. Nick didn't even get a bonus. But he's done very well. He is still in the oil business. And he works as a consultant. Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.
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