January 21 – Oil’s Well

Today’s Factismal: An oil well was fractured for the first time in 1865.

If you’ve been watching the news lately, odds are that you’ve seen a story about hydraulic fracturing or fracking as it is known in the oil industry. (Full disclosure: I work for an oil company.) But what the story probably didn’t tell you is that fracturing began nearly 150 years ago!

The reason that oil wells are fracked is simple: it increases the amount of oil that they produce. That’s because most oil wells are very narrow holes that go through a very short layer of oil-bearing rock (called a formation) that is sandwiched between two layers of rock that doesn’t have any oil. Because those holes are rarely more than a foot across, there isn’t very much surface area for the oil to ooze through. By fracturing the rock, drillers increase the surface area, which increases the amount of oil that comes out.

A good analogy for this is a bag full of marbles. If you cut a hole in the bottom and make it just big enough for one marble at a time, then the marbles will fall out of the bag very slowly. But if you tear that hole so that it is larger, then you’ll get a lot more marbles out a lot faster. That’s what fracking does; it tears a bigger hole in the formation.

And that is why Edward Roberts decided that it might be a good idea to put what he called a “torpedo” of gunpowder down a well bore and set it off. Based on his experience in the Civil War, Roberts knew that the mud that drillers used to lubricate the well during drilling would help make sure that the explosion did most of its work deep in the hole. What he didn’t know was how well the system would work. After setting off the torpedo and fracking the formation, the wells produced more oil. A lot more oil. In some cases, where the well had been producing ten barrels a day, it started to flow at 120 barrels a day.

All of that extra production made the drillers very happy. What didn’t make them happy was the amount of money that Roberts wanted for his torpedoes: $200 per torpedo (roughly $3,000 in today’s money) plus 6.7% of the increased oil flow. As a result, a lot of drillers started using Roberts’ idea without paying Roberts for his torpedoes. They would have unlicensed torpedomen come in and frack their wells. Because they were doing this unlawfully, they would sneak in and out by moonlight and became known as “moonlighters”.

Today we use fluids and grains of sand or walnut shells (called “propants”) to frack wells. But the reason we do it is still the same: because it increases the amount of oil we get out. And we owe it all to Edward Roberts and his exploding torpedo in 1865.

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