Hydraulic Fracturing: An Interview with Alex Shea
Alex Shea currently works at a cryogenics gas plant in Oklahoma, after a year in the oilfields of Colorado and North Dakota. He is using his earnings from oil and gas to develop an alternative economy which values the prices of goods and labor according to their resource and health impacts, respectively. Yetibits.org, in beta as of August 2015, provides an alternative market and democratic governing system that rewards consumers and businesses for environmentally friendly decisions and challenging work. Hannah Coolidge interviewed him about his time in the oil and gas industry.
Hannah Coolidge: Since the beginning of 2015 the US has been producing, on average, over nine million barrels of crude oil per day, and the International Energy Agency predicts that by 2020 we’ll become the world’s largest oil and gas producer. A lot of this production spike can be attributed to the recent large-scale application of hydraulic fracturing technology in the US. Can you tell me a little bit about fracking and how it works?
Alex Shea: Yeah, so we’re using a combination of a relatively new technology—horizontal drilling—and hydraulic fracturing, which has been around for a while although it’s been developed a tremendous amount in the last decade. That combination has been a game-changer. Hydraulic fracturing is when you pump a mixture of sand, water, and various chemicals at high pressure down a well. The idea is to create fissures in the shale to release more hydrocarbons, and sand is used to keep the pores open so that the hydrocarbons can flow through the cracks and up to the wellhead. That technology has been around since the late ‘40s, but those were all vertical wells.
Now we’ll drill down vertically, maybe two miles deep, and at that point we’ll put a bend in the drill pipe, and then we’ll drill horizontally for another mile or two. We call it toe to heel fracking—you can imagine the pipe in sort of a boot shape—and we’ll frack it in stages starting at the farthest end—the toe—to maximize pressure for that zone. Once that zone is fracked, we plug it and perforate the next zone closer to the heel. It's common to see 20-40 zones over a frack job for a single well.
HC: How has this combination of technologies changed the oil and gas industry in the US?
AS: The biggest thing is that it’s allowed a significantly larger volume of hydrocarbons to be extracted from each well, because we can now drill horizontally where we used to drill vertically. This matters the most in dense rock like shale: in shale, the crude isn’t like a fluid you can suck up through a straw—you have to break up the rock up over a long and flat zone to get it out.
So for example in North Dakota, they’ve known for a long time about the shale rock there, and they’d put in experimental vertical wells trying to hit that shale. But the thickest part of the shale in the Bakken is about 100-200 meters wide and it was too hard to hit that pay zone; it wasn’t economically feasible. The price of oil would’ve had to go up to about $200 a barrel, or more, to make vertical drilling there worthwhile, and we’ve never seen prices anywhere near that. Now, with horizontal drilling, instead of a pay zone that’s about 100 meters in diameter by 100 meters deep in the shale, you have a pay zone that’s 100 meters in diameter and several miles long.
HC: Tell me about the jobs you’ve had in oil and gas.
AS: I started off working in water transfer—kind of your grunt frack laborer—in Colorado. We were building pipelines to draw water from different sources and sending it through these aluminum or polyethylene pipes out to the frack site. At the frack site we had several tanks where water was stored and treated, and we had to monitor the levels and make sure there was a continuous supply.
After the water transfer job I got hired at a remediation drilling company. We’d go out to tank batteries and gas stations and our job was to clean up oil and gas leaks. It’s related to the oil and gas industry, but it’s not really fracking. When you’re remediating hydrocarbons, all you can do is break them up and shuffle them around. We used a relatively small rig that drilled down into the water table, a couple hundred feet at most, and injected a water-based mixture that contains carbon and oxidizers. The carbon acts like a filter—it traps the hydrocarbons—and I won’t say what the oxidizers were specifically because that’s a trade thing, but they would react with the hydrocarbons and release them into the atmosphere. That’s all you can really do.
In North Dakota my official job title was Engineering Technician, so I was the engineer on location. I’d go out to different frack jobs with the same crew, and I had to keep track of everything on location (chemicals, wellhead pressures, job design, flow rates, etc.), and I had to answer any technical questions from the company man and relay data to my company.
HC: What what was your typical work schedule at the frack site and what would be a typical day on the job?
AS: My schedule was two weeks on, one week off. One week of working nights and then you’d rotate into day shifts. If you were working a day shift you’d get up around three or three-thirty and you’d get on the bus around four, and then everyone would go to the frack shack and be there until four-thirty or five filling out their DOT log forms. Then we’d all get on the bus again and go to Albertson’s to get some groceries for the day and then we’d drive out to location, which would be an hour and a half to three hours out. Some of the guys were able to sleep on the bus but I wasn’t one of them.
We’d get out to location and we’d have maybe a half-hour safety meeting on the bus. They’d give us updates on what was going on: whether we were still pumping, if the rig was gonna be rigged up, or rigged down, or modified. The safety meetings were very thorough.
After that we’d all go to our different jobs on location. At least two people will operate the blenders, which are large machines that mix the sand, water, and chemical slurry to be pumped downhole. Some heat water, some monitor water, and others haul water. One guy pulls a single lever to dump sand for 12 hours. That might not sound so bad, but try doing that when it’s 40 below and the wind is blowing hard, or when it’s over 100 Fahrenheit and you’re wearing coveralls and you’re having trouble breathing through your dust mask.
In our company everyone starts at the bottom and works their way up to supervisor, or higher. Some of the others on location are the ground boss, who verifies the correct valves are opened and closed between zones and inspects the pipelines from the equipment to the wellhead; quality control, who tests the water and slurry for the company man; and “chemies”, who monitor all the chemical tanks. There might also be a mechanic, someone to monitor the horsepower trucks, and various other contractors on site.
Out of 20-40 people on location, from up to a dozen different companies, I was considered the third highest ranking position. The highest is the company man, followed by the frack supervisor, who was my direct boss. If you’re likeable, it’s very common to jump to the company man spot and triple your income, but the only downside is that you’ll be the first to be laid off at your new company, since you technically start at the bottom of the exploration and production companies, such as XTO, Anadarko, and Devon.
The company man represents those E&P companies and makes calls based on how the job is going. He’s the ultimate authority on location and has the power to ban entire companies from coming back.
HC: Let’s talk about the environmental aspect of fracking. Do you think fracking is safe for the environment or not?
AS: It’s definitely not safe. I think the biggest reason is the attitude of the industry and the work schedules. I think in theory it could work, I think the theoretical engineering of fracking is actually pretty sound, but the rules… they’re not broken, but they’re bent. When a frack job says that you want a maximum pressure of 6000 psi, but the boss wants you to go to 7200, you don’t argue…
Also, you’re tired and you stop caring at some point. Like, I found even myself—I’d see a big thing of grease on the ground and think, “I just need to get a fucking shovel and shovel that somewhere.” And then I’d think, “now I have to find a place to put this, now I have to find a way to either report it and do a bunch of paperwork or not report it and not do paperwork…” you know? and you already have like five other things that you might need to be doing.
HC: What about, say, the leakage of natural gas into aquifers. How did they deal with those issues?
AS: I think that’s more of a drilling site thing.
HC: Right, improperly concreted wells. But it’s become more of an issue with the fracking boom because of the rush to drill and cement wells as quickly as possible.
AS: I’ll tell you why I think that’s the case. Those cement guys have the highest turnover rate in the industry and it’s because they’re working over 140 hours a week. They'll drive out to location and they’ll be out there for like two or three weeks, they’ll be sleeping in their trucks and taking really quick naps. There are 168 hours in a week and our max work week was 126 hours and that was fucking shitty, and I at least got to go back to the man camp every night and have a meal cooked for me and sleep three or four hours a night in a bed. Granted, a shitty bed, but still a bed. Whereas my buddy who worked concreting wells, he maxed out at 146 hours. You cannot tell me that those guys aren’t gonna make mistakes.
HC: What about chemical spills?
AS: It depends on the chemical. If it’s something benign enough not to cause physical human harm, like grease or something, you just left it on the ground. Actually in North Dakota I don’t think I ever saw a chemical spill cleaned up, whereas in Colorado they have berms under all the trucks.
HC: How about the disposal of fracking wastewater. Did you see how that was managed?
AS: Well, it depends on the company. After a fracking job is done you have all the flowback, which is the liquid produced from the frack job, and once they finish fracking the well a very small crew of guys will come out and monitor it for about five weeks. By that time the oil or gas concentration will be high enough for the water to be separated out and put into frack tanks. That water contains whatever was in the frack fluid that you pumped down the hole, and it also contains whatever was in the hole before you fracked it. There’s all kinds of caustics, radioactive material—there’s a lot of stuff 5,000 to 10,000 feet below the surface that you don’t want to touch… you just don’t want to mess with it. In Colorado I know that a lot of the water is sent down the next hole. Elsewhere, it’s more common to send the wastewater down chemical injection wells, which run much deeper than frack wells. Partly the problem is that it’s difficult to treat frack water so that it’s suitable for the next job. But reusing frack water is becoming more common, more economically feasible.
HC: In 2011 and 2012 the average number of deaths in North Dakota for oil and gas workers was about 74.5 per 100,000 workers, which was 3 times the national average for workers in the industry. Do you think that has to do with the boom environment?
AS: I think that’s actually the biggest hazard. Because of the cyclical nature of oil and gas, everybody’s working crazy hours and nobody’s getting any sleep, they’re far away from friends and family, and they’re pissed off or upset or maybe they’re taking it okay… but it's a shitty environment in so many ways. The money’s good but that’s about it. One guy that I was good friends with, he told me that once he was so delusional from sleep deprivation he started eating a plastic water bottle—
HC: Holy shit.
AS: —Yeah, you were so ridiculously tired that you couldn’t think clearly. That’s how a lot of the injuries happen and that's how a lot of the mistakes happen.
HC: So what about the upshots of fracking? Are there any? One argument in favor of fracking is that it’s bringing a lot of the ugliness of our oil addiction back home, which at least allows us to deal with the problem face-to-face. Where do you stand on that?
AS: I think it’s important for people to be aware of environmentally damaging processes, and how they relate to the goods that they consume, I think it’s actually... [sighs]. I don't think that we should export all our problems just because we can. I don't really agree with a full ban on fracking, and I think Americans should own the problems they create, instead of relying on imported oil from countries with fewer worker and environmental protections than ours, notably OPEC. I don't like the NIMBY thing, but that's just me.
HC: If we just ban fracking we’ll just get our oil somewhere else, where the extraction process is less regulated.
AS: Yeah, that's my only beef with banning fracking. Otherwise, you know, I think ideally we would do something to stop it.
HC: How do you think the US fracking boom has affected the environmental movement to reduce our dependence on hydrocarbons?
AS: I definitely think people are a lot more vocal about environmental policies and alternative energy, and that's a great start. I know a lot of people who are very active about it, who care a lot about the environment. But from a global standpoint, I’m not sure. I don't know if, with the current technology we have available, that we would be able to wean ourselves off of petroleum completely. I’m not personally convinced that solar, wind, geothermal and hydro can completely replace our hydrocarbon needs. And even if they could, battery capacity is a major hurdle. For instance, what will be used to replace our diesel fuel, which is necessary for harvesting crops, minerals, and energy itself? Sure, biodiesel is a great alternative, but then we’ll be interfering with cropland. Are Americans willing and able to see their food prices increase?
HC: Yeah, and hydocarbons are one of the most efficient energy sources by weight and volume, right up there with human body fat.
AS: There’s an incredible amount of energy packed into a hydrocarbon, that’s for damn sure.
HC: What about regulation? Do you think that would help?
AS: Yeah, because of the nature of this industry I do believe in regulating to some degree. For example they could ban drilling less than half a mile from suburban or urban residential areas, and anywhere that people can be exposed to shit… When you’re working on a frack site you’re breathing in a lot of diesel and hydrocarbons. You feel sick, you feel nauseous. There are some people that had to quit because of this, and it took me about a month and a half to kind of get used to it.
It was the worst for me in Colorado because they put walls up around all the frack sites, to block the sound of mining because the neighbors get upset, and those are the worst sites. You’re in a hydrocarbon gas soup, it’s awful. But I don’t think other people should be needlessly exposed to it, either. They didn’t sign up for that, they’re not selling their bodies for it, so… there’s no need to fucking frack half a mile from somebody’s home.
I also believe in enforcing the DOT log times. I know that’s gonna be unpopular with a lot of oil-fielders, because they want the overtime, but you don’t need to work more than 70 hours a week. They’re fudging their forms, that’s how they get away with that.
HC: How so?
AS: If you’re a CDL driver, you can work one 16-hour day in a seven-day period, and you can work up to 14 for the rest, up until 70 hours, and then you have to have a 24-hour reset… and technically we did that… sort of. People would put less hours on their logs if they “might be” sleeping in the cabs for a certain period of time during the work day. That does happen, you do get down time, but not as much down time as they’re suggesting.
HC: And taking a nap in the cab of your truck isn’t the same as a full night’s sleep.
AS: It’s not. My crew lead was DOT, and he had to be awake the whole time and he had to be responsive the whole time because he was the frack guy, and he managed it well—it was really impressive—but you’ve got this guy on the verge of sleep-deprivation and he’s making some potentially damaging calls. And logistically I understand that it’s difficult to work out, especially because no one in their right mind would want to live in a place like Williston.
In Colorado, the state is pretty on top of their regulation. For example you can spill five gallons of water—fresh-water, even—or you can spill a gallon of anything else, and if it was more than that you had to report it. I don’t know exactly how many of the spills are just water, but you don’t have to know very much to bring water from point A to point B. They spill water all the time. I’m not sure if they actually report it all, though, it depends on whether there’s a supervisor around. I know when I had my burn there I didn’t report that shit. Well, I would have got fired for one, and I couldn’t afford that…
HC: You got burned? What happened?
AS: We were setting up water tanks in preparation for a frack job, and two or three of those tanks contained flowback from a previous site. On one of those tanks there was a valve on the top, and it wasn’t all the way closed. I was changing out a fitting and when I took the fitting off the liquid started spewing at me, it shot out maybe five feet. I didn’t know how to make it stop so I screwed the old fitting back on again, and then my lead came over and he was laughing and he went to the top of the tank and closed the valve. It felt like water so I didn’t think too much of it. I thought, “it’s water, it smells a little funny, but it’ll dry out, whatever.” So that was towards the end of the day, and I went home and showered, and then over the course of the next month or so my skin started bubbling up, basically a huge chunk of my forearm and calf, and part of my thigh. It wasn’t a blister, it was like my skin was melting off or something. It was really gross. And I didn’t take the time to get it looked at since I was working so much, I didn’t really have a day off and I didn’t want to report it because I didn’t want to get fired, so…
HC: You would have been fired?
AS: For one, I would have been fired for not reporting it right away, and two, they would have fired me because it was a safety incident—it would have affected their insurance. For three, technically at that moment I was a temp for hire, meaning I wasn’t officially hired yet, so it would have been a lot easier for them to just drop me at that point. There were a lot of reasons. I was like, “okay, it’ll just go away.” It’s better than before, in that my skin isn’t melting off anymore, it’s just gone. Now I have to worry about spontaneous bleeding and staph, but it’s manageable.
HC: How long has it been since the accident?
AS: Let’s see, it’s June? That was February of last year, so… sixteen months?
HC: Do you have any idea what it was?
AS: I don’t know what caused it—there are so many variables—but we narrowed it down to a skin ulcer. Whatever it was it degraded a few pieces of my flesh, and the best way to help it heal is diet, exercise, and, uh, what was the third thing? Basically I have to improve the circulation and maybe my body will help rebuild some of that tissue. It’s generally gotten better, but there’s still gaping holes in my leg. Not gaping, gaping might not be the best word, but there’s holes in my leg, so it’s… it’s not great.