A Brief History of Fracking

Brian Hicks

Written By Brian Hicks

Updated December 19, 2023

The Bakken in North Dakota, the Marcellus in the Pennsylvania, and the Barnett Shale in Texas are credited with giving birth to the current fracking revolution…

And protests. Hollywood actor Matt Damon has said the following regarding fracking in New York:

What Gov. Cuomo is doing is he has decreed this moratorium, and he wants the science to dictate what he does. That seems to be a pretty rational approach. Rushing into something seems insane, given what’s at stake, and given some of the complaints we’re starting to hear. Let’s wait and see.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

I know Matt is a smart guy. He was accepted at Harvard, after all.

But it might surprise Matt that fracking dates back to around the time of the U.S. Civil War.

So if that’s “rushing into something,” I’d like to see what he considers “taking our time.”

You see, in 1866 (147 years ago), U.S. Patent No. 59,936 was issued to Civil War veteran Col. Edward Roberts.

Roberts’ invention is known simply as “Exploding Torpedo.”brian_image1_0110

Its creation began when he witnessed Confederate exploding artillery rounds plunging into the narrow millrace (canal) that obstructed a battlefield in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Roberts’ observation gave him an idea that would evolve into what he described as “superincumbent fluid tamping.”

Nobody knew it at the time, but Roberts’ “Exploding Torpedo” was the birth of the modern-day shale fracturing industry…

The Titusville Morning Herald reported in 1866:

Our attention has been called to a series of experiments that have been made in the wells of various localities by Col. Roberts, with his newly patented torpedo. The results have in many cases been astonishing.

The torpedo, which is an iron case, containing an amount of powder varying from fifteen to twenty pounds, is lowered into the well, down to the spot, as near as can be ascertained, where it is necessary to explode it.

It is then exploded by means of a cap on the torpedo, connected with the top of the shell by a wire.

Filling the borehole with water provided Roberts his “fluid tamping” to concentrate concussion and more efficiently fracture surrounding oil strata.

The technique was immediately successful. Production from some wells increased 1,200% within a week of being shot — and the Roberts Petroleum Torpedo Company experienced booming business as a result.

Roberts’ company flourished as it helped other oil companies frack their wells.

To avoid Roberts’ fees and royalties, some oil companies hired unlicensed operators to “torpedo” their wells, working by “moonlight,” where the term originates.

Roberts hired lawyers to protect his patent… and is said “to have been responsible for more civil litigation in defense of a patent than anyone in U.S. history.”

“Exploding shot” would be used in oil wells for decades to come.

But instead of an exploding torpedo, drillers used nitroglycerin detonations to increase a well’s production.

Nitroglycerin detonations would be used until 1989. But the next evolution of the Roberts torpedo came in 1947 in Grant County, Kansas, where natural gas wells underwent the very first hydraulic fracturing…

Then came an oil well two years later.

On March 17, 1949, drilling experts fracked an oil well about 12 miles east of Duncan, Oklahoma.

Later that same day, Halliburton and Stanolind Co. successfully fractured another oil well near Holliday, Texas.

In 1950, hydraulic fracturing was used for the time in the Cardium oil field in central Alberta, Canada.

But it wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that a man named George Mitchell cracked the code and unleashed an ocean of gas and oil from shale…

Known now as “the father of shale gas,” Mitchell applied fracturing to the prolific Barnett Shale in Texas where the modern-day shale revolution was born. Thanks to Mitchell, every shale formation in the United States is now open for business.

Mitchell gave an interview to Marketplace this past December. Here’s an excerpt:

In the 1970s and ’80s, the country’s conventional, big pools of natural gas were tapped out. Drillers looked in new geologic formations, but found themselves stumped.

“We knew the gas was there,” Mitchell tells Marketplace. “We didn’t know how to get it free.”

His firm’s breakthrough was coaxing natural gas from stubborn rock known as shale. It unlocked a new geologic door to fossil energy.

Mitchell began poking in shale in the early ’80s, in a picked-over spot in east Texas called the Barnett Shale. Shale is dense, tight rock that traps hydrocarbons inside. Back in the day, some even even pondered exploding atom bombs underground to get the energy out.

But what Mitchell discovered is that shale has naturally occurring cracks in it. If you can frack it where the cracks are, the gas comes out easy. Mitchell described it as taking a baseball bat to a windshield that already has cracks in it.

The results were phenomenal — and the Barnett Shale quickly became a huge producing natural gas field.

Companies then took that technology and applied it to the Bakken in North Dakota and Marcellus in Pennsylvania in the mid- to late 2000s.

The results?

The U.S. now has 200 years’ worth of natural gas… and is predicted to be the largest oil producer in the world by the end of the decade, thanks to fracking.

As for Matt Damon’s argument to “let the science dictate”?

By 1988, hydraulic fracturing had been successfully applied nearly one million times. And as of today, more than 2.5 million hydraulic fracturings have occurred worldwide.

Oh, and by the way… because the United States is using more natural gas as a result of the fracking revolution, the country’s CO2 emissions are at a six-year low…

Fracking is good for the environment.

Forever wealth,

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Brian Hicks

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Brian is a founding member and President of Angel Publishing. He writes about general investment strategies for Wealth Daily and Energy and Capital. For more on Brian, take a look at his editor’s page.

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