Photo of a well

Fracking: An Explosive History

The technique of extracting oil and gas from the rock in a well with primitive, hydraulic fracturing–like methods can be traced back to the American Civil War.

In 1862, a man named Edward A. L. Roberts was fighting against the Confederate army during the Battle of Fredericksburg. The lieutenant colonel noticed the effects of torpedoes hitting a nearby river. He survived the battle and left the armed services a year later, but his torpedo observation remained on his mind. Three years later, the lieutenant colonel launched the Roberts Petroleum Torpedo Company, having invented a new way to extract oil and gas from the ground. He patented his invention as “the Exploding Torpedo.”

Roberts’s method involved lowering 15- to 20-pound torpedoes filled with nitroglycerin into a well, and then covering the borehole with water to intensify the effectiveness of the blast. The invention increased oil and gas production from certain wells more than tenfold. For the next 16 years, Roberts charged a premium for others to use his invention: up to $200 per torpedo and a one-fifteenth royalty of the increased flow of oil from the well using his technology. He also spent a significant amount of time and money protecting his patent to stop “torpedoists” and “moonlighters”—other oilmen who illegally used his technology. Roberts died a wealthy man in 1881, having laid the groundwork for what would eventually become hydraulic fracturing.

More than half a century later, in 1949, Halliburton became the first company to use commercialized hydraulic fracturing in the United States, and over the decades, technological advances have led to the widespread use of fracking throughout the country. In the 1990s, Woodlands, Texas-based Mitchell Energy & Development Corporation began using hydraulic fracturing to extract hydrocarbons from shale.

Led by George P. Mitchell, often credited as the “Father of Fracking,” the Mitchell Energy & Development Corporation perfected the technique of horizontal drilling, using sand in its frac fluid. These fracking techniques, combined with dramatic shifts in global energy markets, profound changes geopolitically, and the rapid expansion of US drilling, have created a boom in the production of oil and natural gas.

“Fracking has moved us from an era of energy scarcity and uncertainty to an era of abundance, affordability, and diversity,” said Sam Ori, MPP ’03, executive director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago.

It’s an era in which technology and R&D companies, like Energy Recovery, have identified an opportunity to introduce innovative—and disruptive—technological advances.

—By Brent White