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Here's How Fracking Works

By Motley Fool Staff - Apr 27, 2017 at 2:15PM

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Our energy analysts explain the ins and outs of one of the newer and more complicated ways producers are getting oil out of the ground.

Fracking has really taken off in the last few years, and technology is improving at a breakneck pace, allowing companies around the world to tap into oil that used to be totally inaccessible. So, how does it actually work?

In this clip from Industry Focus: Energy, Motley Fool analysts Sean O'Reilly and Taylor Muckerman walk listeners through the fracking process. Find out what steps frackers go through to make their drilling safer, how drilling technology has improved recently and what kinds of opportunities that opens up for drillers, and more.

A full transcript follows the video.

This video was recorded on April 20, 2017.

Sean O'Reilly: We've been doing this for a year and a half together. We've talked a lot about fracking. It's kind of all we talk about.

Taylor Muckerman: Well, it's what's disrupted the industry over the last decade or so, and it's what put American oil and natural gas back on the map.

O'Reilly: I have a good friend who's a petroleum geologist. I remember when he was in school 10 years ago, he gave a presentation about this, and I happened to be on campus. I was just passing through. He was talking about this and how revolutionary it was. He was talking about -- we're going to talk about it in a second -- drilling sideways and all this stuff. It was a big deal, and we hadn't been able to do that until recently. So, first and foremost, we need to clarify some terms. Fracking is actually what happens after a well is drilled. We've been drilling oil wells for over a hundred years.

Muckerman: The technology there has definitely improved, but it's not what fracking is.

O'Reilly: Have you ever been to Drake's Well, Pa.?

Muckerman: I haven't. That's the original, right?

O'Reilly: It's so anticlimatic.

Muckerman: Yeah, I'm sure. Kind of like the geyser in Yellowstone. Whatever, dude.

O'Reilly: The actual well drilling, which, again, going down, we can now go 360 degrees around. That immediately makes any given oil well more valuable. You used to just drill a hole and oil would come up, and that would be it.

Muckerman: And you would have to go straight down. But we're going up to 10,000, maybe even a little further down now.

O'Reilly: I saw this graphic, and they had Empire State Buildings down.

Muckerman: Yeah, multiple Empire State Buildings.

O'Reilly: Yeah, they had, like, five.

Muckerman: We can go over a mile horizontally once we're a couple miles below the surface. We're not just going straight horizontal anymore. We have directional drilling, where it's basically like a video game --

O'Reilly: Does the bit do any dances, like a shimmy-shimmy?

Muckerman: I imagine the movie Tremors, with that big monster eating its way through the ground, and choosing its path at will.

O'Reilly: Do you think they saw the movie and thought, "We need to do that"?

Muckerman: Yeah. I mean, it's not doing spirals. It has to have some sort of straight direction to it, because they have to have the casings and cement to fortify it. But yeah, we're not just going at a 90-degree angle anymore.

O'Reilly: Correct me, but, basically, when they're doing all these drills and the fracking, which we're going to touch upon in a second, a lot of what they do is to basically make sure the hole stays in place and together.

Muckerman: Yeah, a lot of pipe and a lot of cement go into this process. The first thousand or so feet, I don't know, it depends on the water level, but they have to protect them first and foremost.

O'Reilly: And that gets cased in cement.

Muckerman: It does. They lower the piping down, and before they drill any further, they force cement down the hole, and wraps around the pipe at the bottom, and then upfills, and once it's cemented then they can use the drill bit to drill back through the hardened cement, and then they can continue drilling down to the oil and natural gas. First and foremost, they're protecting the water level.

O'Reilly: So they're making a thousand-foot straw out of cement.

Muckerman: The whole thing is a straw, but that's the most heavily protected part of the straw.

O'Reilly: OK, and that's so things don't collapse --

Muckerman: Well, that and so we don't mess up the water table.

O'Reilly: Important also.

Muckerman: Yeah, so the oil and natural gas aren't seeping out into the water table through cracks in the casings. Basically, what you can imagine is, the top of this hole has the widest casing, and then they just put smaller and smaller casings down through, so it's kind of like a police baton when they snap it out.

O'Reilly: Right, or an inverted skyscraper. That's actually a good analogy, the baton. Respect. So, hydraulic fracturing is the use of -- this is what I got offline -- fluid and material to create and restore small fractures and rock formations. One that hopefully has oil and natural gas in it, of course.

Muckerman: Yes, you would hope. There's companies out there that help them arrive at that conclusion.

O'Reilly: Right. So, historically, you find these geologic formations, and we know the types of rock that usually have reservoirs of oil. That's easy.

Muckerman: Yeah, that's called conventional oil.

O'Reilly: Yeah, that's conventional oil, and it's easy. It's drilling a hole and There Will Be Blood.

Muckerman: Big basins, generally long-lasting wells.

O'Reilly: Right. That's what Saudi Arabia has with their Ghawar Field; that's what we're talking about here. This is going down there thousands of feet, and there's oil stuck between the tiniest of rocks. It's actually crazy to think about, that we're getting it out.

Muckerman: Yeah, it's thin layers that are separated by sediment and rock. So they drop a wire line into these drilled wells and send an electrical charge through this wire that then creates, like you said, a small explosion, and they do it over stages.

O'Reilly: Are you saying they're fracturing the rock, Taylor?

Muckerman: They are, they're fracturing the rock. Through the steel casing, and then through the rock, with pellets and things that diffuse reaction. They do it in stages. That's one reason why we're producing more oil now, because we're being able to tighten the spacing, so we can have more stages per well. They frack, they plug, they frack, they plug, they frack, they plug. Then, once they've fracked all the stages, they remove the plugs, and then they start the process of forcing the fluids and proppants down into the fractures.

O'Reilly: This is like putting a man on the moon. This is really complex.

Muckerman: Maybe even more complicated.

O'Reilly: You ever hear the computers they used for the first Apollo 11, the original Game Boy had more computing power than those computers.

Muckerman: Yeah, now you're just walking around with several of those in your pocket.

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