How I Made My Mind Up About Fracking

What are the pros and cons of fracking? A science writer who inherited a share in a Texas oil well is forced to choose.

may 2015 oil wellRichard Hamilton Smith/Gallery StockEast Texas between Houston and Galveston is a low flatland 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. Donkey-head wells and offshore rigs are moored opposite shrimp boats.

I’m here to check out an oil well I own. And I’ve come to answer a question: Should I hang on to its mineral rights and keep getting my small royalty check each month? Or sell them to a wildcat suitor who wants 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. The technology, which uses prodigious amounts of pressurized water laced with chemicals to break shale rock and liberate entombed oil or natural gas, is either going to help the United States achieve an elusive goal—to become energy independent—or unleash a host of problems.

As a science writer from a famously liberal state, Massachusetts, I’m keenly aware of how my values clash with famously conservative Texas. In Massachusetts, we post “frog crossing” signs at every vernal pool. In Texas, they post “pipeline crossing” signs at almost every intersection.

Yes, Everyday Folks Own Oil Wells

I became an oil well owner in 1968, at the age of 22. My father was running for governor, and he had to divest himself of many holdings to avoid conflicts of interest. He gave my sisters and me part ownership of a well that he had bought from an old Army buddy. That might sound pretty grand, but the well had been in operation for years and was producing a trickle, enough to pay each of us $28 a month.

It wasn’t that unusual at the time to own an oil well. In many countries, the government owns the rights to oil, gas, and other underground resources and controls development. Here, oil companies deal directly with the people who own the booty, which tends to encourage entrepreneurialism and development, for better or worse.

In 1973, I started receiving letters from Exxon explaining that the company planned to “unitize” our oil field, so we’d be paid a percentage of what the entire field produced rather than what came from our individual well. There was a risk: We could earn less. 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 a little less like J. R. Ewing and a lot more like Cliff Barnes, the dupe who was always getting outfoxed by the Ewings. But time passed and technology progressed until, last year, I started receiving letters and phone calls again. They were from wildcatters who wanted to use newer techniques to siphon the remaining oil out of the field, now called the Webster tract. In some cases, they were sending $6,000 checks to buy my share.

The Fracking Debate Gets Personal

As the oilmen explained it, primary production had drawn about 80 percent of the oil out of the field. But the remaining 20 percent was still lying below, and they believed they could recover it. I had read most of the literature about the negative effects of fracking: how it could contaminate groundwater, contribute to air pollution, create wastewater issues, and, according to some anecdotes, even cause tap water to become flammable.

may 2015 oil well frackingBryan Christie Design for Reader's DIgest

But I had also noticed what fracking had done for the economy. For example, by tapping previously locked natural gas, it had enabled gas prices—and home heating and electric bills—to remain low for several years. I watched as Salem, Massachusetts, replaced its old coal-fired power plant
with a new gas-fired one, thanks to fracking. But did I really think that my well was going to help usher in energy independence—or just more environmental problems?

I needed to do more sleuthing. 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 went online to do research and 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 sitting in subterranean vaults. As a result, I thought I might find unconditional support for oil and gas extraction, but 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 last year in a landmark suit against a company whose fracking operations, they argued, had made them sick and killed some of their ranch animals. In November, Denton, north of Dallas, became the first city in Texas to ban fracking altogether, although legal challenges remain.

Other articles gave me important historical context. What we know today as fracking began in 1981 when Mitchell Energy was the first to drill horizontally to reach the Barnett shale formation beneath Fort Worth. It used a “slick-water frack”—which involves adding chemicals to well water to allow it to flow at a higher rate—and dramatically increased the amount of retrievable natural gas.

In the late 1990s, these technologies, coupled with other innovations, helped trigger a nationwide fracking boom. 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 extracted 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 critics.

Newer players do not want to repeat that history. I 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. The website demonstrates a determination to get things right. Its introduction reads, “As exciting as this shale is, we know that we have a responsibility to do this thing correctly.”

Then I called the owners of the Webster tract: Denbury Resources in Plano, Texas. I asked Jack Collins, head of owner relations, 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.”

With fracking, fluids are forced into a wellhead to break up the shale and free the oil or natural gas. With CO2 flooding, carbon dioxide is pumped into a 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. (CO2 is also used to boost natural gas extraction, but this practice is less frequent.)

may 2015 oil well co2Bryan Christie Design for Reader's DIgest

In 2015, Denbury plans to pump human-made CO2 emissions—via pipeline from a new power plant being built in Mississippi—into the Webster field. After the oil is extracted from Webster, the company intends to leave the remaining carbon dioxide underground, where it cannot contribute to global warming. The federal government will provide the plant with a grant to participate in the project.

I wondered: Had I become an investor in an energy company that is doing carbon sequestration and oil extraction right? I decided to go to Texas to find out more.

Talking With The Neighbors

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

I spoke to several neighbors to learn what they thought of the project. I talked to a carpenter who said he was concerned about reports of earthquakes in West Texas, 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,” said the man. “But there have never been any earthquakes there before.”

I asked another local resident, Weezie McKay, what she would do if a company wanted to recover oil or gas under her house. “I would start to look for a new home,” she said without hesitating. However, Eric Miller, a chemical engineer in Orange, 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,” he said.

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. But the average well isn’t a gusher; it’s one more like mine that can produce a moderate amount of oil for several decades or more 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-trapped CO2 from the ocean, then sequestering it under sediment, where it gradually cooked into oil and natural gas. In essence, oil is our planet’s way of cooling itself down. The problem is that now we are putting that carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere so fast that the 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 reputation, oil is one of the cleanest fuels we have—far cleaner than coal or tar sands. In their view, we should convert to wind and solar energy while conserving what oil is left for essential things like transportation.

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

My Verdict

I like to think that using CO2 to extract oil takes all the considerations into account, and my well is owned by a company that is 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 after its injection system blew the cement casing out of a well in Mississippi and carbon dioxide escaped, 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. But even wind turbines have been blamed for killing wildlife. Like wind and solar power, carbon sequestering is not the complete answer, but it seems to me to be a step in the right direction.

In theory, my field will make a modest profit extracting oil out of the ground without most of the problems associated with fracking. It will sequester four percent more heat-trapping carbon underground than will be emitted by the pumped-out oil, the equivalent of taking several hundred thousand cars off the road.

So I have decided to hang on to my well to see what happens when it is pumped full of 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.

William Sargent is a consultant for PBS’s NOVA and the author of 20 books about science and the environment. 

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William Sargent
William Sargent is a consultant for PBS's NOVA and the author of 20 book