In with the old

Michael “Mick” Adkins sat at his kitchen table sifting through a box of old photographs, payroll logs, safety manuals and even a “driver’s pocket guide to hazardous materials” from his 1980s employment with energy giant Halliburton.

“We would frac wells in Warren, Youngstown; we did Pennsylvania. It was huge in the 80s, just like now,” Adkins reminisced recently about his short stint with the the company in 1981 and 1982.

The northeast side Warren man was struggling, though, to find an explanation for recent outrage by environmental groups and now some big name celebrities speaking out against hydraulic fracturing, and why so many people mistakenly believe the process that has been around for decades is new.

Hydraulic fracturing is the process of blasting millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals and sand, into deep wells in an attempt to crack or “fracture” the rock and release trapped fossil fuels.

“The concept is still the same. I just don’t understand why. I have never heard one complaint or anything about contaminated water from all the wells that we fracked,” Adkins said.

Indeed, hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as “fracking,” has been in existence in Ohio since 1953. Rhonda L. Reda, executive director of industry agency Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program, or OOGEEP, agreed that the fracturing process today is very similar to its inception.

“The only difference of today versus 1953 is today we can watch everything in real time,” Reda said.

What is relatively new in the process is deeper and horizontal drilling.

“They don’t know the history and they don’t realize that it’s been going on for years and years and years. Horizontal (drilling) is new,” said Sue Beates, curator of the Drake Well Museum in Titusville, Pa.

The Northwestern, Pa., town of Titusville is home to the Drake Well, believed by some to the the most important oil well ever drilled because it was the first successful well drilled in 1859 for the sole purpose of finding oil, ultimately changing our way of life.

“I think people are just now learning about it, and it’s a big deal because it’s new to them,” Beates said.

Still, as more and more water is used to fracture oil and natural gas wells, now at deeper depths and also with the relatively new process of “horizontal drilling,” environmental groups like Sierra Club and FreshWater Accountability Project Ohio are being joined by Hollywood celebrities like Matt Damon and Robert DiNiro and other big names like Yoko Ono and her son Sean Lennon in their fight against the process.

A conference to focus on environmental, economic and health concerns brought about by hydraualic fracturing was held Friday and Saturday in Warren. The two-day conference focused on unconventional drilling that sponsors described as “relatively new to Ohioans.”

In a statement sent to promote the conference, sponsors were calling for Ohio elected officials and regulators to look to other states where there is an industry track record to “study what is known about the fossil fuel fracking process, what is not known and what needs to be studied in greater depth.”

Ohio next year will mark its bicentennial of oil drilling. Hydraulic fracturing first came on the scene in this country in the 1940s. Coincidentally, the process of hydraulic fracturing was first used by Adkins’ former employer Halliburton in Kansas in an attempt to find safer ways to “stimulate” the oil flow, Reda said.

According to both Reda and Beates, before hydraulic fracturing, drillers would use dynamite or nitroglycerine to stimulate the oil flow in a process known as “shooting the well.”

The process was so dangerous early in the 19th century that the average life expectancy for “shooters” was 30 years old, Reda said.

Today, however, Reda said, Ohio has 65,000 active wells. All of them, she said, have been hydraulically fractured.

Records with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources indicate that 292 Ohio wells are have been drilled and fracked horizontally, rather than the traditional vertical process, into the Marcellus and Utica Shales, deep pockets of natural gas below Ohio and Pennsylvania.

A Halliburton truck driver and operator of the machine commonly called the “blender tender” that mixed together the chemicals, water and sand, Adkins – now 55 with two grandsons – said he never worried about danger to the environment nor drinking water contamination, and in fact, he still doesn’t.

At that time, Adkins said they were drilling vertically and more shallow wells than today’s Marcellus or Utica Shale wells. According to records that Adkins saved throughout the years, the amount of water used on wells he fracked in the early 1980s was in the tens of thousands of gallons, rather than the millions of gallons used per well today.

Calling the job one of the most interesting he’s had, Adkins said he resigned in 1982 only due to the long hours away from home and his growing young family.

“The most hours I put in was 105 hours in one week,” he recalled.

Other than long days away from home, his biggest concern at that time, he said, was safety for the workers.

“You are working with a crew, and if you are not focused on what you are doing, one mistake can really hurt,” Adkins said.

While his crew helped frac more than 100 wells in less than two years, he noted, at that time, the work was never met with protests or opposition.

“I just don’t see anything wrong with it,” Adkins said. “These companies are trying to make money and create jobs for people. I just don’t get it.”