Texas has been known for decades as the oil state, accompanied by the quintessential stereotype of oilman as a big, loud buffoon, wearing boots and a 10 gallon hat with oil wells in his backyard. Embarrassingly, that stereotype has been perpetuated over the years by the antics of some of our politicians and public figures, but has really never been true. Historically, Texas has been a progressive and forward thinking state, leading in engineering, new technologies, and especially in the innovations in the hydrocarbons extraction business that have been developed by companies based in Texas. The results of those innovations, as well as the presence of easily obtainable conventional oil production, made Texas an energy powerhouse in the early to mid 20th century. Unfortunately, though, after peaking in the early 1970s at about 3 1/2 million barrels of oil per day, production in Texas declined steadily for the next almost 40 years. Texas’ position as world powerhouse faded, as did revenues from oil production in the state.
That is, until about 10 years ago when the industry began refining new technologies that allowed access to reservoir rock that had been previously unproductive. The industry had been drilling directional holes for years offshore in order to have access to a number of wells from one platform; that same technology was then moved onshore to drill controlled holes to subsurface targets. With the advent of better control of the drillbit, as well as the development of tools to evaluate formations while drilling, horizontal wells began becoming more and more common to access more drainage area with one well. Multiple hydraulic fracturing treatments were then developed, and the shale boom began. Much of the early shale drilling occurred in Texas, but then spread to northern and northeastern states, where vast resources of entrapped oil could finally be accessed. Those same kind of resources also existed in Texas, and drilling began in earnest about 7 years ago reversing the decades-long decline in oil production.
Texas now holds 47% of all rigs drilling in the US drilling in West and South Texas, and produces 30% of US production. All of this is possible with the new technologies, but this success is not without controversy. As hydraulic fracturing has become more common, the public’s awareness has also increased. There is a lot of hysteria and hyperbole surrounding hydraulic fracturing, but there are clear issues with which the industry has not yet resolved. The primary issue is the destruction of millions of barrels of fresh water and the other is (though rare) the contamination of ground water. The industry has dismissed these concerns publicly, knowing that there are issues. There are confirmed cases of ground water contamination; however, I believe that the vast majority of that contamination comes from careless handling of flowback water at the surface, allowing water to percolate down to fresh water sands, not coming from below as a result of the frac jobs themselves.
My biggest concern, however, is the use of fresh water. Intensive operations are reducing water tables to dangerously low levels in West and South Texas, endangering water supplies for domestic use. This water use is unsustainable, in my view, and the industry must develop more reliable methods of recovery and re-use, as well as new techniques that don’t use water at all.
Hydraulic fracturing is clearly with us to stay…our own domestic production is simply too important to our energy security to not use it. However, we must continue to develop technology and improve safety to reduce the risks of oil and gas exploration.