The Promise of Fracking Was Discovered by Accident

George Mitchell, founder of Mitchell Energy, encouraged his engineers to keep experimenting with shale, despite years of failure and frustration.

Daniel Raimi
Daniel Raimi, senior research associate at Resources for the Future. Photo courtesy of Daniel Raimi.

Hydraulic fracturing was first tried in western Kansas in 1949, but it would take decades before the technology would lead to the shale revolution.

“I heard a quote from someone in the oil industry who said, ‘The shale revolution is an overnight success that was decades in the making,’” says Daniel Raimi, author of “The Fracking Debate: The Risks, Benefits, and Uncertainties of the Shale Revolution” (Columbia University Press). 

In a nutshell, what happened is that hydraulic fracturing, combined with other more recent technological advances—namely horizontal drilling—enabled companies to develop oil and gas from shale profitably.

“But the most consequential change was the result of an accident,” notes Raimi, who elaborated on what happened during our interview on The Fracking Debate:

“In that section of the book I am drawing on another book called ‘The Frackers’ by Gregory Zuckerman, a Wall Street Journal reporter. He does a great job describing the early experiments of Mitchell Energy, which had been mostly using gel-based fluids—this goopy gel being pumped in at high pressure—to do fracturing treatments. But one day when they were doing the fracturing treatment they ran into a problem with the mixture, which ended up being more water-based than they had intended. When the well was more productive than they expected they realized they were onto something with this mixture that was less gel-based and more water-based.” 

The rest of the story is revealed in the “What is Fracking?” chapter of “The Fracking Debate,” in which Raimi writes:

“While some in the company continued to believe it was a crazy idea, Mitchell began using this water-based fracking fluid in all of its Barnett shale wells. Experimenting with hundreds of well, they adjusted the amount of sand in the mixture, pumped it at greater pressures, and used greater volumes of water. Over time, as the engineers continued to tweak, the wells got better and better, producing more and more gas. In time, Mitchell Energy was consistently making a profit from its Barnett wells, and other companies started to catch on…. The shale revolution had begun.” 

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