How pumping mud deep underground helps farmer join the energy business

Rice farmer Chester Jordan's grin was as broad as his hat brim as four huge orange pumper trucks sat idling after forcing 150,000 pounds of bauxite two miles beneath his fields.

Mr. Jordan had good reason to be pleased. With some help from two industry giants, Dow Chemical USA and Amax Inc., he had just joined the energy business.

For 45 years Jordan has been ''on the wrong side of the fence,'' watching successful natural gas wells sprout up on his neighbors' land. Exploration on his land had produced only ''dry holes.''

But now Jordan is cashing in on the latest ''fracturing'' or ''deep well stimulation'' techniques. By forcing a mudlike substance as far as 20,000 feet underground at pressures reaching 20,000 pounds per square inch, ''frac'' crews can split rock apart to tap gas and oil reserves previously considered unrecoverable.

On a national basis, the Department of Energy reports that 50 percent of current US oil production involves fracturing and related treatments. The department adds that 1 trillion cubic feet, or 5 percent, of annual US gas production, comes from ''unconventional sources'' opened up to production by fracturing.

Fracturing plays an increasing role in holding energy prices down, says William Sallans of the Petroleum Equipment Suppliers Association, since ''fracturing improves the overall supply situation and anything extra we produce here is that much less we import.''

In Chester Jordan's particular case, three producing gas wells on his land will bring some welcome extra income.

Jordan also plans a change in his farming operations. He'll still use most of his 3,000 acres for soybeans and ''raising the best rice in the world.'' The three ''Christmas tree'' arrays of pipes and values marking his gas wells won't interfere with his farming.

But this year Jordan is planting guar for the first time. The soybean-like guar plant's seeds, usually imported from India, are used in frac jobs to thicken the frac fluid enough to carry sand, glass beads, or bauxite. So besides getting well royalties, Jordan will also be an energy industry supplier.

Still grinning, this tanned farmer says simply that ''I think everybody needs to get into the energy business.''

Jordan, naturally, would have liked to join the business sooner. But that had to wait for Amax Petroleum Corporation. This branch of the giant mining company Amax Inc. reviewed old well logs in the Katy area, near Houston, and decided dry holes here could be turned into producing wells.

As with most major oil and gas projects today, Amax's original drilling plans called for fracturing to increase well productivity. This adds an extra $200,000 to the cost of each $2 million well put on Chester Jordan's land.

To do the fracturing after three days' notice from Amax, Dow Chemical's Dowell division sent a 25-man frac crew to the well site with a complex maze of heavy equipment.

High-pressure pumping split apart the rock 10,350 feet below. After the hydraulic fracturing, fine grains of bauxite were pumped into the broken rock to prevent underground pressures from resealing the fractures. Within three hours, the result was a half-mile network of ''highways'' propped open with bauxite. This enables gas to flow into the well from the ''tight formation'' sandstone two miles underground.

For Dowell's market manager, Joe Pavlich, a petroleum engineer, this particular frac job was routine. It was one of the 25 to 35 fracs that Dowell does every day throughout the US. Bauxite is used instead of sand about once a day when its far higher cost is justified in cases where extreme underground pressures would crush sand.

One on-site sign of how rapidly fracturing technology changes is Dowell's new ''quality assurance vehicle'' - a truck fitted with a battery of 14 minicomputers. Backed by Dowell's own rock mechanics lab, this computer bank has been at work since October monitoring Dowell frac jobs.

Scott Willy, the Dowell computer scientist who designed the vehicle, hopes to have another 10 on the road soon. He says he's already given tours of the vehicle to specialists from Halliburton Services, Dowell's main competitors - and expects Halliburton to build its own computer vehicles as soon as possible.

But even the latest technology can have problems. As Dowell service supervisor Dave Thomas directs the work, two of four pumpers shut down. After an anxious moment, two backup pumpers maintain pressure. A sharp pressure drop before all the bauxite is pumped down could let the fracture ''heal'' and force Dowell to start all over again.

With the job complete and the roaring pumpers shut down, Kent Corrigan starts the long, hard task of preparing for move to tomorrow's site.

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