The fracking boom began in the farmlands outside Denton, where George Mitchell, a gas and oil driller, spent more than 15 years experimenting with tapping the Barnett Shale that underlies numerous Texas counties.
Mitchell, the son of a Greek goat herder, was an industry maverick. He studied chemical engineering at Texas A&M. But he also attended seminars at the Aspen Institute, where he was influenced by Buckminster Fuller, the inventor and philosopher who spoke about developing a new ethic of sustainability.
Mitchell, who died last year, championed gas as a cleaner fuel than coal and wanted to find ways to dramatically increase production. Traditional wells tapped into pockets of gas trapped underground, but Mitchell was convinced that vast amounts could be liberated from source rocks.
Mitchell’s breakthrough came in 1997 as his crews abandoned a costly gel used in fracking in favor of a much cheaper mix of water, chemicals and sand.
In the first few months after fracking, Mitchell’s crews worried the flow from that fracked well would fade. It didn’t, and in the years that followed, horizontal drilling was found to free up even more shale gas.
“There is so much gas out there. All we have to do is turn on the tap,” said Chip Minty, of Devon Energy, a major developer of fracked wells. “Unlike any time in the history of the oil and gas business … we can get it when we need it. And we will.”
Today, some 18,000 wells have been drilled into the Barnett Shale. Their concrete pads are scattered over the farm fields and pasture lands, and now in towns and cities such as Denton. Nationwide, shale-gas fields helped boost total U.S. natural-gas reserves by 35 percent during the two-year period ending in 2008.
The technology is evolving so quickly that wells drilled in Denton less than a decade ago already are being redrilled to frack more gas-rich shale.
“I hate to say it like this. A lot of times we buy other people’s garbage, and we are taking their garbage and recycling it,” said Mark Grawe, chief operating officer of EagleRidge Energy, which in recent years has been the most active drilling company in Denton.
Health, safety concerns
As fracking has grown, so too have the safety and health concerns.
In some areas of the country, increased fracking has been accompanied by a dramatic surge in earthquakes. Researchers also are assessing the risks that reinjected wastewater from fracking sites could pose to drinking-water aquifers, and are looking at the possible effects on lakes and steams of runoff from fracking sites.
Outside of Denton, population 123,000, the small town of Dish has some 60 gas wells as well as a station where gas is pressurized for transport. Residents complain of headaches, nosebleeds, nausea and other health problems that they believe are linked to air pollution. Some families, including that of a former mayor, ended up leaving.
In Denton, residents who live near gas development are concerned about whether their health is compromised by exposure to air pollutants such as benzene, a carcinogen.
More recently, residents of a subdivision built within 300 feet of EagleRidge wells were angered by fumes, noise, nighttime lights, gas flaring and truck traffic close by their homes. This year, they filed a $25 million lawsuit against EagleRidge.
Grawe, of EagleRidge, says he tried to minimize the impacts of the operation.
“The perception has been that we don’t care about anything, and are just out to do whatever we want,” he said. “ But I’ve been out at night talking to people about their concerns about noise and light. I’m just as concerned about the environment as they are.”
The drilling so close to this subdivision helped spur a petition drive to ban fracking in the city, and that proposal — an idea rejected by the city council — will be on the ballot this fall. If passed, the ban would be a first for a major Texas city.
“There were people who we were working with who thought that was too radical a measure. But when that fracking started by those homes, everyone said they have just crossed the line to a level of brutality that is unacceptable,” said Cathy McMullen, a Denton home health nurse who helped organize the petition drive.