Author: Luis Rodriguez
Ever wondered what “fracking” is all about? I don’t mean from a macro perspective, with people espousing its geo-political implications, its potential impact on the world energy mix, or its potential to become one of the most significant technological advances in the energy industry in decades. I mean from the perspective of the everyday worker who stands at the base of this fracking pyramid, and whose days consist of fracking the world, one well at a time. The “frac hands,” as they are fondly called in the industry, are daily protagonists of this revolution. My hope is to shed some light on what a day in their lives entails.
The “frac crew,” a team of 20 to 30 frac hands, arrives at a drilled well-site, or “pad,” together from the nearest town, which is often several hours away. Awaiting them at the pad are all the equipment and materials required to perform the frac job, among them pumps, blenders, a hydration unit, material units, cranes, an operations monitoring unit, generators, and tanks. The first task is the assembly, or “rig-up,” of all the equipment necessary to pump the high pressure mix of water, chemicals and sand that will ultimately be used to frac the ground below. The rig-up involves putting together a puzzle of more than 300 pieces of pipe, that weigh a combined total of over 30,000 pounds, in order to force the water from the tanks, through the equipment, into the well. It takes less than four hours for the crew to execute a well-established choreography – picking up the pipes, screwing them together, and finally pounding them tight with a sledgehammer until the rig up is done.
As the finishing touches of the rig-up come together, operators begin firing up the equipment and making final checks before the job begins. With the engines starting to hum away in the background, the safety meeting begins. The meeting is an all-encompassing review between the client, frac supervisor, and crew encompassing themes such as operators not allowing what seems routine to lead to complacency, empowering everyone and anyone to speak up if exhaustion is affecting their concentration, procedures to follow in the eventuality of any mechanical failure, emergency response plans, radio communication, and other processes established in the event of an unexpected situation unfolding.
Once the meeting ends, a final “pressure test” is performed on all the equipment and pieces of pipes that have been rigged up. Pressure is brought up to the maximum working pressure, triggering the pressure safety system and allowing for one final check for leaks or safety issues before pumping begins. Safety is the utmost priority; with pressures 400 times greater than those inside a car tire, any mistake may prove lethal. A successful test is a testament to the quality of workmanship of the rig-up, so having it go well can speak volumes of the crew.
With the pressure test complete and all equipment and operators ready, the well is opened. At this point there are over 20 fracturing pumps rigged up, capable of producing enough energy to light up a small town for more than a month. When the pumping starts, the journey down the well begins. The depth of the well can be over 15,000 feet, approximately equivalent to 10 empire state buildings. After two to three minutes, the frac fluid arrives at the bottom of the well, and pressure gradually builds up. Everyone waits anxiously for the shale formation to start to crack so that the pressure eases and the rest of the procedure can begin. The fluid is pumped faster and faster as the noise of the 50,000 horsepower engines rumbles in the air. The operators relay through radio headsets the latest readings from their respective posts:
“Chemicals down one-third. One sand compartment gone;”
“The trucks with the material for the next stage have arrived;”
“Pump 6 is overheating;”
“Pump 12 will have to be sent home for transmission repair after this job.”
Suddenly, “Fire on pump 5! Fire on pump 5!”. Immediately, two operators appear with fire extinguishers at full blast, a third one is communicating what is happening to the client and supervisor, the safety systems shut the engine off, and the line operator takes the pump offline. The pump operator dials up all the other pumps, making up for the lost pump in order for the job to continue as planned. The supervisor transmits to the office via satellite that a new pump will be required in order to replace the one that just caught fire and the extent of the damage to the pump being sent back to the maintenance shop. The planning for the unplanned pays off as the job begins to reach its conclusion after 2 to 4 hours of pumping. The operators and equipment have managed to pump into the ground an Olympic-sized swimming pool worth of water and 400,000 pounds of sand. Two square miles of shale have been fracked in this first stage. After 10 more stages on this well, spanning a couple of days, the well is finally “fracked” and all the equipment is “rigged down” and moved to the next well for this same procedure to begin anew.
With ten years of experience and more than 20,000 wells successfully fracked, it is the dedication of the frac hands to safety, planning for the unexpected, and getting the job done that continues to move this story forward. As fracking brings forth a new era in the energy world, it is easy to forget that these little-known protagonists exist and that their dedication will remain a crucial part of the success of hydraulic fracturing in the future.
Luis A. Rodriguez is currently a dual degree E-IPER student at Stanford’s GSB. He holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Universidad Simon Bolivar, and has worked with both ExxonMobil Upstream, in Cerro Negro, Venezuela, as wells a with Schlumberger Well Services in North America.