Two decades ago, an engineer tried a new way to get gas out of the ground. Energy markets and global politics would never be the same.
DISH, Texas – Twenty years ago this month, a well was drilled here that changed the world.
Nothing at the time suggested the unassuming well in this rural town north of Fort Worth would hobble OPEC, the powerful oil cartel that had governed prices of the world’s most important commodity for more than a generation. Or that it would help turn the U.S. into a global energy exporter, or shuffle the geopolitical deck.
But it did all of that – and more. The well used hydraulic fracturing to crack the incredibly tight shale rocks below. It fired the first shot in the fracking revolution–a blast soon felt in Riyadh, Tehran and Moscow.
“I had no idea it would cause so much change. I was just trying to keep my job,” said Nick Steinsberger on a recent visit to the well pad. He was the engineer who obtained permission to try a new approach to completing the well that had been drilling a mile and a half deep into a thick grey wedge of rock known as the Barnett Shale.
Mr. Steinsberger, now 54, called the experiment “my slick-water frack.” It was the first commercially successful use of sand, water and chemicals, pumped into the shale under high pressure, to break open the rock and unleash the natural gas trapped inside. It was the beginning of modern fracking.
Today, most wells drilled in the U.S. use some variation of Mr. Steinsberger’s fracking technique. It has unleashed an unimaginable wealth of natural gas, gas liquids and crude oil, turning the U.S. from an energy pauper into a muscular exporter. It also started an often acrimonious environmental debate about the potential impacts and trade offs of fracking.
“It is one of the most extraordinarily important, disruptive, technologically driven changes in the history of energy,” said Ed Morse, global head of commodity research at Citigroup. “It was revolutionary for the U.S. economy and it was revolutionary geopolitically.”
Mr. Steinsberger’s modest experiment demonstrated that the oil and gas industry had the tools to fracture the rocks where fossil fuels were slowly baked over the millennia. A huge trove of natural gas was accessible at an economical cost.
It started in the Barnett Shale. Then other gas-bearing shales were discovered. The Marcellus Shale in Appalachia turned out to be larger and more fecund than the Barnett.