While not synonymous, fracking and energy go hand in hand, and innovations in hydraulic fracturing technology and processes have directly contributed to the U.S. becoming the global oil and gas powerhouse it is today.

“Fracking and the exploitation of shale in the United States has created unprecedented growth in oil and natural gas production and led to the U.S. being a leader in energy production globally,” James West, senior managing director at Evercore, told E&P.

Evercore James West
“Don’t bet against the U.S. oilman,” James West, Senior Managing Director, Evercore. (Source: Evercore)

Although fracking is paving the way for the U.S. to continue to advance its oil and gas operations, a more efficient and sustainable approach is required to optimize wellbores while also reducing emissions. 

“Completions technology through the 2010s was just improving the horizontal completion process with multistage fracturing and the different tools and processes that enabled that,” William Ruhle, strategic business manager at Halliburton, told E&P. “When I think about the last five or even the last seven years, it’s been about making the process at the surface more efficient to get through more work, deliver more materials and do more services in a given day.”

Efficiency and optimization have been the name of the game for oil and gas operators for years because there is no use in spending millions of dollars to drill multiple wells if the maximum volume of hydrocarbons cannot be recovered. Concepts that emerged in the manufacturing sector in the ’80s and ‘90s, like continuous improvement and sophisticated supply chain management, have been incorporated into business models and have also spearheaded the widespread industrialization of the industry, ProPetro CFO David Schorlemer told E&P.

Service companies in the oil industry were doing good work in harsh conditions in different regions of the world, but the industry reached a point of complacency; they were just “getting the job done,” Schorlemer said. The problem with that approach is that simply “getting the job done” is not good enough, particularly in challenging market conditions, and that prompted the industry to take a long, hard look at its business model.

Strategies for Optimization

Companies realized they needed to try something different, Schorlemer said, so they began using new processes and technologies. 

ProPetro David Schorlemer
David Schorlemer, CFO, ProPetro. (Source: ProPetro)

“It required optimizing and utilizing industrial technologies and equipment for the industrial application,” he said.

One significant change has been the migration from daylight-only operations to 24/7 operations. Another is reducing swap times, the time between completing the fracturing stage of a well, sending wireline down and completing and perforating the next zone and beginning the next frac. 

The need to minimize time between stages led to the development of technologies like hydraulically actuated frac manifolds, FHE’s RigLock wellhead connector and new approaches to executing fracturing programs, such as zipper fracs and simul-fracs.

The efficiency of zipper fracturing, a multi-well completions technique in which horizontal wells are completed in a back-and-forth fashion, with one well pumping while wireline operations occur on another, has made it a widespread practice, but  simul-frac operations, in which two or more parallel horizontal wells are hydraulically fractured at the same time, enable faster swap times.

“It’s been nearly 10 years since we brought simul-frac into the market where we simultaneously fractured two wells at once,” Ruhle said. “We saw the industry grow steadily over the years doing more and more of that, and today we’re even doing trimul-fracs where we’re simultaneously pumping down three wells at once.”

In a recent trimul-frac job, Halliburton fracked 6,000 ft in one day, or 60% of the well.

Not long ago, Ruhle said, it was only possible to frac two wells over a five- to six-day period. Now, the industry is beginning to roll out quadral-fracs or fracking four wells simultaneously.

Companies today are able to build anywhere from 10 wells to 20 wells on a single pad, Schorlemer said. Operators can be on site for a longer period of time pumping instead of moving from location to location. This reduces mobilization time and replaces it with enough pumping time to increase the amount of footage treated per day, he said. 

“We can be fracking on a multi-well pad for not just days, but weeks, and even in some cases months. You’re basically converting from a ‘day job’ mentality to almost that of a mini-manufacturing plant out in the field,” Schorlemer said. “Once you can convert it to that mini-manufacturing plant, you can begin to take advantage of all the different processes and technologies that the manufacturing industry has benefited from in decades past.”

Improving logistics also has contributed to fracking process improvements. With around-the-clock operations, there are fewer interruptions to the processes of gathering water, frac sand or proppants because they are already onsite.

West said, “I wouldn’t say that the technology itself has changed a lot in the last decade. It’s been more about better utilization of technologies. Better structuring, better planning and better execution has had the most impact.” 

For one thing, it is possible to complete “12 or 13 stages per day at this point," he said, “and maybe even higher in some of these highly optimized operations,” he continued, noting the significant improvement over one to two stages per day, which was typical a decade ago

Even though enormous improvements have been made, West believes there is room for improvement. “There are still times when a well might have 30 frac stages, but a half or a third of the well doesn’t produce. In other words, it’s fracked but no oil or gas comes out,” West said.

“While we’ve optimized the top side of the well operation, and we’ve optimized the drilling of the well,” he said, the industry has not figured out how to optimize the fracking process. “Because shale geology doesn’t conform to normal geology, it’s not consistent. We have been trying to figure out how to make every fracture stage work, and we’re not quite there yet.”

Another example is advancements in explosives technology. This has led to better penetration during frac operations and less shrapnel left behind in the well, but the technology used in oil and gas operations lags behind the tools used by the U.S. Department of Defense, West said.

The Role of AI

One area of innovation that is flourishing is AI and machine learning in equipment monitoring and predictive maintenance to prevent catastrophic failures. These technologies also help operators and service companies evaluate productivity and aim to solve the issue of making every stage of the fracture “work.” Halliburton’s Octiv Intelligent Fracturing platform, for example, uses operational data and AI to automatically respond to different events in the well.

“We recently deployed a system across our whole fleet called Octiv, which automates how we run a whole fracturing spread. We’ve also automated how we run our wireline equipment,” Ruhle said. “With the push of a button, you can complete a whole frac job, or you can complete a wireline run and go and perforate a well.”

And data analytics and machine learning are playing a more critical role than ever, according to West.

“The full optimization of fracking and completions is going to involve a lot of data analytics and machine learning, which go hand in hand,” West said. “We’re going to—at some point here—drill, complete, construct wells and start to produce wells autonomously as well. I think it’s highly likely that we see an autonomous well drilled in the Permian probably before we see an autonomous taxi in New York City.” 

However, Schorlemer cautioned that increased adoption of AI is something that the antiquated technical architecture of the traditional oil field cannot support without massive upgrades.

AI “has required us to completely revamp our technology resources. We have been building out a new team that is focused on understanding the requirements of big data and helping us to understand how we can benefit from AI and machine learning,” he said. “We’ve also been replacing organic disintegrated systems with more enterprise solutions that … have some of these technologies embedded in them, so it’s required us to build a team internally to help us make that transition.”

In addition, Schorlemer said ProPetro has been augmenting its internal team with expertise from third parties. 

Changing Perceptions

ProPetro FORCE
Electric Fleets, or “e-fleets,” generate lower emissions than traditional diesel fleets. (Source: ProPetro)

Although the industry is using cutting-edge technology and processes that make people safer and streamline operations, public perception of fracking and oil and gas operations remains negative.

This has led companies like ProPetro to think critically about how they and their customers operate and about the impacts of their operations. 

Schorlemer said many of ProPetro’s completions processes and technologies have been created with the goal of reducing the impact of traffic and emissions and improving site safety.

“We want to be good stewards of the environment that we’re operating in, and we believe in the hydrocarbon industry,” Schorlemer said. “Utilizing new technologies that reduce emissions, that improve efficiencies, that reduce truck traffic on the roads, all of those things are in our interests, and we’re going to continue to look at ways to make sure that we’re doing things in the most efficient and environmentally friendly way that we can.”

One way the industry is improving environmental stewardship is by reducing emissions with a dual-fuel frac fleet, which is  powered by both natural gas and diesel fuel, and shifting to electric fleets or “e-fleets.”

“The reason [operators] like the electric systems is that they’re cleaner. They are lower emitting. They’re more reliable, which means you get more uptime, so they’re more efficient operations,” Ruhle said. “And the big kicker—the No. 1 driver—is the lower input costs when it comes to fuel. Even if you’re running an e-fleet off natural gas, there are enormous savings relative to burning diesel. You’re saving on the order of a couple of million dollars a month on diesel.”

Halliburton, which first successfully deployed a grid-powered frac fleet in West Texas in 2021, has transitioned 40% of its fleet from conventional diesel-powered fracturing units to electric.

As operators aim to recover as much oil and gas as possible from a well, service companies are innovating on the tech that will help them reach those goals.

“I think the whole industry is up to the challenge,” Ruhle said. “There are a lot of technologies that will be coming out that enable that, where we can hook up to the wells on a pad and pump continuously the whole time we’re on that pad.”

Although significant challenges remain, West, a long-time oil analyst, is optimistic: “Don’t bet against the U.S. oilman.”