One autumn morning in 1998, a soft-spoken, ruddy-faced petroleum engineer named Dennis Phelps walked out of his office at the Atlantic Richfield Company in downtown Midland and drove a company car, a four-door Chevrolet, to M. T. Boultinghouse 11-7, an oil well that had just been drilled amid some cactus and a few scraggly mesquite trees twenty miles south of the city’s airport. He parked several yards from the wellhead and stepped inside a small RV that was outfitted with some tables and chairs, a computer, and a coffeepot. Taped to one wall was a long sheet of paper that looked like nothing but a series of squiggly lines: a seismic well log.
The RV was owned by BJ Services, a Midland firm that the Atlantic Richfield Company had hired to fracture, or “frac,” the well, a technique that involves pumping a sand-filled, gel-like fluid down the well’s pipe at high pressure. In a normal frac operation, the fluid shoots out through holes that have been bored into the pipe at certain depths, causing the adjoining rock to fracture, much as a car windshield splits into dozens of tiny cracks when struck by a hammer. The sand braces the fractures, most of them no wider than pencil lead, sort of the way timber props open a coal mine’s shafts. Then, hopefully, the oil that has been trapped in the rock flows through the fractures back to the well, seeps through the holes in the pipe, and is pumped to the earth’s surface.
In the Permian Basin, every oil well had to be fracked. It had been at least sixty years since a West Texas oilman had punched a hole into the 74,000-square-mile ancient seabed, heard a rumbling in the earth, and stood back to watch a geyser of black crude shoot into the air. In fact, by 1998, the Permian’s oil fields had been so heavily drilled that it was considered to be on its last legs. Sure, there was oil to be recovered, but it was a mere trickle compared with the glory days of the forties and fifties, when the region had the richest oil fields in the world, credited with fueling much of the Allied effort during World War II. Back