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Fracking in the US: The story of one man's oil well

A writer from liberal Massachusetts goes to Texas to deal with a family oil well. What he learned about fracking, salt domes, and America's energy future. 

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    A photo illustration featuring contributor William Sargent. This is the cover story in the Sept. 29 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.
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East Texas between Houston and Galveston is a low flat land of cayenne-pepper heat coming off the tepid waters of Galveston Bay. The cries of laughing gulls and great-tailed grackles fill the salty air, and the silhouettes of vultures circle overhead. Donkey-head oil wells and offshore rigs moored opposite shrimp boats in the bay remind me that, despite a scattering of wind turbines and solar panels, the United States still remains firmly anchored in the Petroleum Age.

That may be fortuitous for me, since I’m here to check out an oil well I’ve owned since I was in college. The site lies in a landscape of former horse farms and pear orchards on the Gulf Freeway, which runs between the two cities. 

I’ve come to Texas to answer a simple question: What should I do with the mineral rights beneath the well – hang onto them and keep getting my small royalty check each month? Or sell them to one of many wildcat suitors I’ve had in recent months, most of whom want to “frack” the well?

This could be my J.R. Ewing moment.

Like many Americans, I’ve followed the debate over fracking from a distance and am fairly familiar with the arguments on both sides. The technology, which uses prodigious amounts of pressurized water laced with chemicals to break shale rock and liberate entombed oil and gas, is either going to help the US achieve one of the most elusive goals in modern history – to become energy independent – or unleash a host of new environmental problems. Or it may turn out to be something in between. 

That’s what I’m here in east Texas to decide – what my tiny role should be in the nation’s grand debate over its energy future.

My decision is complicated by one other factor. I’m a science writer from a famously liberal state, Massachusetts, trying to figure out what to do with my well in a famously conservative state, Texas. In Massachusetts, we post “frog crossing” signs at every vernal pool. In Texas, they post “pipeline crossing” signs at almost every intersection. How will this clash of values play out in my decisionmaking? 

As often happens when things are examined up close, my journey through the Texas lowlands and the nation’s divisive energy debate brought some surprising twists – and, for me, an unexpected conclusion.

CHAPTER 1: From earth shoes to ‘T. Boone’ Sargent 

I became an oil well owner in 1968, at the age of 22. 

It was just before Neil Armstrong put his boot print on the moon and college campuses erupted in protest over the Vietnam War.

My father happened to be running for governor as a Republican and a liberal environmentalist, perhaps something you could do only in Massachusetts. He would end up turning the state away from building highways toward building more public transportation. He would give the country’s first Earth Day speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1970. 

But in 1968, when he was seeking office, he had to divest himself of many holdings, including an oil well, to avoid conflicts of interest. So he gave my sisters and me part ownership of the well that he had bought from an old Army buddy in Houston.    

Now that might sound pretty grand, to say you owned an oil well in Texas. But it was a modest distinction: The well had been in operation for years and was now only producing a trickle. It was only pumping enough oil to pay each of us $28 a month.

It also wasn’t that unusual at the time to own an oil well. Many Americans did. In fact, one factor driving energy development in the US over the decades has been the practice of private ownership of mineral rights. In many other parts of the world – Europe, for instance – the government owns the rights to oil, gas, and other resources under the ground and controls development through licensing agreements. Here, oil companies – big and small – can deal directly with people who own the booty, which tends to encourage entrepreneurialism and development, for better and worse. 

I also just found my well a wonderfully tangible investment. I liked thinking of it faithfully bobbing up and down in East Texas as I went about writing environmental books, some of which even bashed big oil. 

Then, in 1973, I started receiving letters from Exxon explaining that the company planned to “unitize” our oil field. This meant that we would be paid a percentage of what the entire oil field produced rather than what was being pumped out of our individual well. 

But it was a tricky proposition. They would have to inject pressurized fluids into the ground to draw out the residual oil. It could result in us earning even less than we had been making before. Given the risks, the company offered to buy me and my siblings out for $5,000 each. 

My sisters were elated. One bought a horse with the money; the other put an addition on her house. I figured that if Exxon wanted our well so badly they had to know something I didn’t, so I hung on to my share. The royalties plunged to about $10 a month. 

I was beginning to feel less like J.R. Ewing and more like Cliff Barnes, the dupe who was always getting outfoxed by the Ewings. But time passed and oil technology progressed until, a few months ago, I started receiving letters and phone calls again. This time they were from small wildcatters who wanted to use newer techniques to siphon the remaining oil out of the field, which they were now calling the Webster tract. In some cases they were sending checks offering to buy out my share of the royalties. 

Was fracking knocking on my wellhead?

CHAPTER 2: What was this money in my mailbox?  

As the oilmen explained it, primary production had drawn 30 to 40 percent of the oil out of the Webster field. 

Secondary production had brought up another 20 percent. But at least 20 percent more was still lying below the Texas sod, which they believed they could now recover. 

It would have been easy for me to simply cash one of the $6,000 checks that were showing up in my mailbox. Yet once again I was curious what the wily Texans knew that this callow Easterner didn’t.  

I had read most of the environmental literature about the effects of fracking, which included some scary stuff: how it could contaminate ground water, contribute to air pollution, create waste-water issues, and, in theory, even cause some people’s tap water to become flammable.

But I had also noticed what fracking had done for energy prices: how natural gas prices had remained low for several years, saving consumers huge amounts on their heating and electric bills.

I had watched as a city near us, Salem, Mass., decided to replace its old coal-fired power plant with a new gas-fired one, thanks to the abundant supplies from fracking. More broadly, I understood that many people believe natural gas can be a bridge to get us from an economy based on our dwindling supplies of oil to one based on wind, solar, and hydrogen energy. 

But did I really think my well was going to help usher in energy independence by 2016, or just more of the same old environmental problems?

I needed to do some more sleuthing. First I clicked on Google Earth to locate the Webster tract. It consisted of about a dozen wells just north of the town of Webster, an aerospace hub of 10,500 people 20 miles southeast of Houston.

I wondered what all those people thought about having oil wells near their homes – wells that might sully their drinking water but might also be worth millions of dollars. So I checked online.

I discovered that Texas has a 100-year history of derricks and drill rigs coexisting beside homes and farms. Cities like Fort Worth, Dallas, and Houston boomed because of the black gold often sitting in subterranean vaults directly below their streets.

As a result, I expected to find unconditional support for oil and gas extraction, and people eager to buy into the latest energy boom. Instead I found that Texas is having many of the same debates as the rest of the country. 

A North Texas family was awarded $3 million in April in a landmark lawsuit against a natural-gas company whose fracking operations, they argued, had made them sick and killed some of their ranch animals. In Denton, just north of Dallas, the city was putting a referendum on its November ballot that would ban fracking altogether. But most of the articles were more nuanced, reflecting the state’s long history of energy exploration and innovation and, yes, its growing use of renewables (Texas has more wind turbines than any state except California). 

In 1981, Mitchell Energy, a Texas company, was the first to drill horizontally to reach the Barnett shale formation beneath Fort Worth. It also used a “slick-water frack” – adding friction-reducing chemicals to the well water to allow it to flow at a higher rate. By combining the two technologies, they could dramatically increase the amount of gas that could be retrieved from shale rock. 

When the price of natural gas rose above the equivalent of $90 a barrel for oil in the late 1990s, these two technologies, coupled with other innovations, helped trigger a nationwide fracking boom – one that extends from the Bakken formation in North Dakota to the Marcellus formation in Pennsylvania to many other parts of the country. 

Today, the Newark East Field underlying the Barnett formation continues to be the largest producer in Texas, accounting for 30 percent of all the natural gas produced in the state. Because it is so big and was the first field to be exploited, the early frackers made mistakes and garnered their share of environmental critics.  

But I also found an online forum for land and royalty owners above the Haynesville shale formation, which covers 9,000 square miles in East Texas, northwestern Louisiana, and southwestern Arkansas. It is conservatively estimated to hold 29 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and to be worth several billion dollars. 

The website demonstrates a new determination to get things right. Its introduction reads, “What makes this site so great? Well I think it’s the fact that, quite frankly, we all have a lot at stake in this thing they call shale.... Our farm has been in our family for over 80 years. As exciting as this shale is, we know that we have a responsibility to do this thing correctly.” 

But when I started calling around I found that things were even more interesting. Exxon Mobil had sold the Webster tract to Denbury Resources in Plano, Texas. I called the head of owner relations, Jack Collins. I asked him when the company planned to start fracking my well. He replied, by e-mail, “We have no plans to frack Webster field, but we do plan to commence a CO2 flood of the field next year.”

He explained that Denbury owned a source of natural carbon dioxide underneath a salt dome in Mississippi. The company was extending a pipeline from Mississippi to Texas, and, when it arrived, it would start pumping natural carbon dioxide into the oil field.

With fracking, fluids are forced into the wellhead to break up the shale rock and free the trapped gas. With CO2 flooding, carbon dioxide is pumped into the well and adheres to the droplets of oil in the shale. It’s a little like mixing turpentine with paint: The oil droplets swell and become thinner so they can be pumped out. 

In 2015, Denbury planned to substitute this natural carbon dioxide with “man-made” CO2 emissions from a new power plant being built in Mississippi. After the oil is extracted, the company  intends to leave the remaining carbon dioxide underground where it cannot contribute to global warming. The federal government will provide the power plant with a grant to participate in the project. 

Mr. Collins sent me some literature that pointed out that the amount of US carbon emissions had dropped in four out of the past seven years because of power plants switching from coal to natural gas. It noted that a plant in Saskatchewan planned to sequester the same amount of carbon dioxide as would be produced by 500,000 automobiles.

I began to wonder: Had I serendipitously become an investor in an energy company that is doing carbon sequestration and oil extraction right?    

There had to be a catch. I decided to fly down to Texas, to snoop around a bit more.  

CHAPTER 3: A shaker of salt and co2  

 I found the Webster tract sitting on both sides of the Gulf Freeway, not far from the Johnson Space Center. 

It lies in an area of upscale malls and less august malls with pawnshops, gas stations, and bail bondsmen.

The land Denbury owns is some of the least developed on the highway. There are large tracts of hardwood forests and the remains of old fruit orchards. Horses and dairy cows graze beside the capped wells of the oil field. Across the highway, towering rigs are starting to drill toward a great dome of salt thousands of feet below, where the CO2 would eventually be pumped in under pressure. 

I decided to ask several neighbors what they thought of the project. On a rainy morning, as I was having breakfast at a Waffle House, I talked to a carpenter who said he was concerned about reports of earthquakes in West Texas, where there is a lot of fracking going on. He was echoing a common concern about both fracking and CO2 flooding.

“Of course there is no way in heaven you can say they were caused by fracking, and they really didn’t do much damage,” said the man, who didn’t want his name used. “But there have never been any earthquakes there before.”

I asked another person, Weezie McKay, what she would do if a company wanted to recover gas under her house. “I would start to look for a new home,” she said without hesitating.

Eric Miller, a chemical engineer in the orchard lands of nearby Orange, had a different perspective. He said he would be thrilled if someone wanted to use carbon dioxide to get more oil out of his well. 

“This kind of thing has been done safely for years. Natural gas is a seasonal fuel used primarily to heat homes in the winter. So when they produce it in the summer they pump it back down into salt domes and store it until the prices rise in the autumn,” he explained. “The chemical industry also gets credits for pumping ethylene into salt domes, and, of course, the government stores strategic supplies of oil in some of the 500 salt domes in this part of Texas and Louisiana.”

I was discovering that there are many ways of looking at oil. Easterners tend to look at it as a messy business of booming gushers that make Texans instantly rich. But the average well isn’t a gusher but one more like mine that can produce a moderate amount of oil for several generations if the correct technology is used.   

Scientists see oil as a mineral that built up when our planet was much warmer and plankton was removing heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the ocean, then sequestering it under tons of sediments where it gradually cooked into gas and petroleum. In essence they see oil as our planet’s way of cooling itself down. The problem is that now we are putting that heat-trapping gas back into the atmosphere so fast that the natural system can’t absorb it without contributing to global warming.     

Many thoughtful environmentalists look at oil and gas differently. They see running out of oil as one of our biggest environmental problems. Despite its dirty reputation, oil is one of the cleanest fuels we have – far cleaner than coal or tar sands. In their view, we should be converting to wind and solar energy while conserving what oil is left for essential things like transportation.

Finally, most Texans still see oil as a pretty good investment that can earn a family a good income for several generations while helping build our nation’s economy.   

I like to think that using carbon dioxide to extract oil from my well will take all of these considerations into account. So now I have to decide: What should I do with the mineral rights? 

CHAPTER 4: My smaller carbon footprint 

My well is already owned by a company that is considered a leader in the field of carbon dioxide sequestration and oil extraction.

Do I think this technology is the silver bullet that will solve all our global warming problems? No. 

Do I think there are no problems associated with carbon injection? No. 

In 2011, Denbury paid a $662,500 fine when its injection system blew the cement casing out of a well in Mississippi, and carbon dioxide escaped and settled in the surrounding hollows, asphyxiating several deer and other smaller animals. Critics remain concerned about whether companies do enough to safely cap the wells so they can withstand the pressure that forces the oil out of dormant fields. 

But even wind turbines have been blamed for killing wildlife such as bald eagles. Like wind and solar, such carbon sequestering is not the complete answer, but it does seem to me to be a step in the right direction. 

In theory, my field will continue to make a modest amount of money extracting oil out of the ground without most of the problems associated with fracking for natural gas. It will sequester 4 percent more heat-trapping carbon underground than will be emitted by the pumped-out oil. This 4 percent represents the equivalent of being able to take several hundred thousand cars off the road. 

So I am curious to see how all this will play out and have decided to hang onto my well to see what happens as we pump it full of heat-trapping carbon dioxide.

I’m hopeful it will help create a world in which CO2 emissions are declining. If so, I may pass on the well to my grandchildren, as my father did to me, as a petroglyph of sorts to the Petroleum Age.

William Sargent is a consultant for the “NOVA” science series on PBS and is the author of 20 books about science and the environment. His latest book, “Islands in the Storm,” is about how barrier beach communities fared during superstorm Sandy

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