Horizontal drilling: a marvel of engineering and scientific innovation

The massive new shale gas and oil resources discovered in recent years were made possible by the wedding of two technologies: Hydraulic Fracturing (“Fracking” in media parlance) and Horizontal Drilling. Of the two technologies, Horizontal Drilling is the real marvel of engineering and scientific innovation. While impressive in its own right, the main innovations in “Fracking” in recent years have been beefing up the generating horsepower to accommodate horizontal wells rather than vertical ones, and refining of the fluids used to conserve water and create better, longer lasting fractures in the target formation.

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Here is what advancement in the realm of Horizontal Drilling means just in terms of access to the resources: when drilling into a hydrocarbon bearing formation 100 feet thick, vertical drilling would allow an operator to contact 100 feet of rock, which would limit the potential recovery to whatever oil or gas would flow into that length of pipe.

Horizontal Drilling now allows these same operators to drill and set pipe for a mile or more horizontally through this same rock formation. They are now contacting and “Fracking” 5,200 feet of rock rather than 100 feet, which multiplies expected well recovery rates many times over. The technology employed is so advanced and exacting that drillers today can hit a target at the end of a drill string that is 10,000 feet vertical with a mile long horizontal section that is no more than a few inches in diameter. Drillers also use sensors to detect particularly promising rock intervals within the formation, and are able to move the drill string up or down, left or right as they drill through the horizontal section to target those intervals. These extraordinary technological achievements enable operators to maximize returns from each well, which in turn means higher royalty payments to mineral owners, and higher tax revenues for local and state taxing authorities.

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Advanced horizontal drilling technology also produces positive results for the environment. A single horizontal well can replace the need to drill a dozen or even more vertical wells to access a similar level of resource. For the environment this means far less air emissions, far less water usage and disposal needs, and far less land impacted to produce a similar amount of oil and natural gas.
Add to all of that the fact that the industry’s ability to access natural gas in shale formations, and the supply abundance that has produced, has enabled the conversion of dozens of older coal-fired power plants to cleaner-buring natural gas. That has led directly to the lowering of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to levels not seen since the early ’90s, a result not matched by any other industrialized nation.

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