Home / Exclusives / 2014’s Booms, Bans, and Busts no. 8: America’s 1st well, nuclear fracking, and shaking hands with the devil

2014’s Booms, Bans, and Busts no. 8: America’s 1st well, nuclear fracking, and shaking hands with the devil

To bring in the New Year, Shale Plays Media is counting down the days with a series that will recount the top stories we’ve covered over the past year. So far, we’ve recapped the new carbon emission regulations and the controversy surrounding oilfield waste disposal. Mostly, we keep our readers up to date with current events, but sometimes we like to look back in time to celebrate drilling’s beginnings, milestones reached, and examine how the process has evolved. Today we’re going back in time to revisit our favorite historical pieces.

"Drake Well, August 2006" by Zamoose - Originally uploaded on en.wikipedia. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

“Drake Well, August 2006” by Zamoose – Originally uploaded on en.wikipedia. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

To begin, let’s look back on 1859 to a forested valley beside a creek in northwestern Pennsylvania where the first American oil well was drilled and proven to be viable. The operation, purely hypothetical at its beginnings, was organized and funded by the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company of New York, which is considered to be America’s first oil and gas company. Having enlisted the help of Edwin L. Drake, America’s first commercial oil well proved itself at a depth of 69.5 feet.

Drake, previously a train conductor, utilized a steam engine and cable-tool rig to complete the well. Drilling methods of the time usually ended with failure, and although the odds were stacked against him, Drake became a pioneer of the new technology. One such convention he pioneered included the use of iron pipes as a means to protect a well’s integrity. Facing many difficulties and having spent five months without recovering any oil resulted in the unfortunate misnomer of ‘Crazy Drake.’

Despite the hardships and uncertainty of the operation, his discouraged primary driller, William ‘Uncle Billy’ Smith, invented a ‘drive pipe’ or ‘conductor’ which would prove their worth and the worth of the resource. The drill bit was dropped into the crevice late August 1861, which resulted in oil floating atop the water in the well. Using a water pump, the new resource was retrieved and sold for $20 per barrel. The well is still producing oil to this very day.

Now, jumping ahead to the Cold War era when arsenals of nuclear weapons were poised to launch at any moment. With an understanding of their effects in war, the United States Atomic Energy Commission (which is now the Department of Energy) began to explore various forms of peaceful applications for atomic weapons. Under the Plowshare Program, the U.S. conducted 27 nuclear explosive tests comprised of 35 individual detonations. Several of these tests explored the viability of using atomic weapons for oil and gas extraction.

In December 1967, in the New Mexico desert near Farmington, government scientists teamed up with the U.S. Bureau of Mines and the El Paso Natural Gas Company, lowering and detonating a 29-kiloton nuclear explosive dubbed the ‘Gasbuggy’ into a 4,240 foot natural gas well. For comparison, ‘Little Boy’, the atomic weapon detonated over Hiroshima, Japan, in WW2 was 16 kilotons.

Scientists lower a 13-foot by 18-inches diameter nuclear warhead into a well in New Mexico. The experimental 29-kiloton Project Gasbuggy device will be detonated at a depth of 4,240 feet. Los Alamos Lab photo.

Scientists lower a 13-foot by 18-inches diameter nuclear warhead into a well in New Mexico. The experimental 29-kiloton Project Gasbuggy device will be detonated at a depth of 4,240 feet. Los Alamos Lab photo.

It was believed at the time that a nuclear explosive would be a more economical way of increasing gas flow. After the detonation of the Gasbuggy, the well produced 295 million cubic feet of gas, five times as much as the well had been expected to produce prior to detonating the nuclear bomb. Unfortunately, nearly all the gas released was burned off, or flared, into the atmosphere.

The Plowshare Program conducted two more similar tests in Rulison and Rio Blanco, Colorado, in 1969 and 1973, respectively. The Rulison test involved the detonation of a 40-kiloton nuclear bomb 8,426 feet below the ground surface. The Rio Blanco test site used three 33-kiloton devices, detonated almost simultaneously, at depths of 5,838, 6,230, and 6,689 feet below the surface.

But, the DOE couldn’t have sold the gas to anyone even if they tried since the gas had become contaminated by Tritium radiation. Burning the released gas didn’t eliminate the radioactivity; rather, it combined the radioactive byproducts such as Tritum and an inert gas called Krypton-85 with the atmosphere, which most likely found its way into the upper-atmosphere.

Nuclear fracking had a good, but short run. With advancements in technology, oil and gas companies have exchanged their explosives for the hydraulic fluids being used today. Despite public outcry over the potential harm of this process, at least we can say, “Well, at least we’re not doing THAT anymore.”

Also during the Cold War, Russia had its own ambitious drilling projects which resulted in the deepest borehole ever drilled. The USSR embarked on drilling the hole in 1970 on the Kola Peninsula located east of Finland.  By 1983 the project, named the Kola Superdeep Borehole, had reached a depth of 39,000 feet.  The project was then halted for a year to celebrate the milestone achievement.  When drilling resumed, the drill went another 216 feet until a 16,404-foot section of drill string (interconnected lengths of pipe) twisted off and was left in the hole.

After the first hole was botched, drilling began again at 23,000 feet, in a new hole called SG-3.  In 1989, 19 years after researchers had broken ground, the project reached 40,230 feet (7.6 miles).  Although the original plan was for the hole to be drilled to 49,000 feet, the project was unable to proceed due to the temperatures encountered.  In recent years, a few longer boreholes have been drilled, but the Kola Superdeep Borehole still holds the record for the deepest artificial point on earth.

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It had been assumed that the density of the earth’s crust increased with depth.  The hole instead revealed highly-fractured rock that was saturated with water.  Until then it was thought that water could not be found underneath the impermeable layers of rock.  Researchers believed that the extreme temperatures and pressures at this depth caused atoms of oxygen and hydrogen to decouple from surrounding minerals and form into water.  Apparently, it is possible to squeeze water from a stone.

The drilling endeavor had remained largely secret and managed to inspire urban legends in the U.S. about a “well to hell” located in an unidentified area in Siberia.  In 1989, rumors had spread to U.S. airwaves that, after drilling to a depth of 47,250 feet, the drill bit spun wildly as though it had reached a pocket of hollow space below.  Researchers supposedly lowered a heat-sensitive microphone into the hole and heard what sounded like the muffled sounds of the damned, to which half of the crew fled from the site. The legend even had a resurgence in the late 1990s after alleged audio from the well to hell surfaced.

The Kola Superdeep Borehole may not have reached hell itself, but it went further than any drill has to date.  The data collected from the project is invaluable and demonstrates how little we know about what lies under our feet.

Be sure to tune in tomorrow for our fourth installment of our countdown to the New Year!