Commentary: “Holy Frac, My Brakes Aren’t Working!”

Well, after posting last week’s article on celebrities and fracing, I’ve come to the conclusion that the key to getting traction with the readers of “Building Hydrocarbon Bonds” is…dropping Zooey Deschanel’s name (or maybe it was making her picture the article thumbnail).  Ironically, my article advocating for people not to pay attention only to celebrity status got over 50 comments and 400 Facebook likes, making it by far my most paid-attention-to post yet!

I can’t say that all the comments were supportive, but hey, what’s that expression celebrities and their publicists sometimes use?

“All press is good press”?…

Seriously though, I’m really grateful for all the feedback, positive and negative.  I’ve had a great time so far posting my thoughts for you, and last week’s animated response just got me even more excited to carry on with this great opportunity I’ve been granted.

So…on to this week’s post!

I think I gave the wrong impression last week.  Celebrities are people also, and of course are allowed their own opinion and a voice in the conversation (or, for Sean Lennon and Yoko Ono, their own singing voice).  But, celebrities have the privilege of a huge platform, and an equally large, eager fan base.  In exchange for the platform and audience they are granted, they have a duty and a responsibility to understand what they’re disseminating.

I believe that’s a fair statement, and I took a lot of heat for writing that.  I spent all week trying to come up with a way to reconcile factually my views (that the act itself of fracing is fundamentally safe) with people’s own negative experiences in their areas (leaks, spills, blowouts) which resulted from shale operations.  Also, just in case people thought I was simply bitter that I wasn’t making movie star money like Mr. Mark Ruffalo, I wanted to come up with an alternate message I could get behind, regardless of who delivered it.

I think I’ve found a way to perform that reconciliation, based on some simple science and analogies.  There are no emotions here, no anecdotes, and no opinions:  just logic and some easy math.  I’ve already got next week’s issue lined up, and it’s completely removed from fracing, s0 consider this my last contribution to this debate for a while!  There’s no engineering degree or field experience required to follow along, just some knowledge of simple high school physics and some imagination.

Here’s a thought experiment for you.

Imagine I’m in a car, sitting on top of a hill.  My engine isn’t working, but I have to get the car down the hill.  Ideally, I’d like to get to the bottom and then turn right to get near the main road, where I can hopefully get help.  There’s a problem though:  at the bottom of that hill is a cliff!

The car and I, up on that hill, are a store of energy, potential energy to be exact.  That is written as:


E is the potential energy, m is the combined mass of the car and I, g is a gravitational constant, and h is the height of the hill.

I can divide each side by height, to give me units of energy per units of height:


Set that formula aside, and imagine me now calling my friends, Tony and Todd; I’d like to have them come give me a push.  Remember the popular phrasing of Newton’s laws?  It goes something like so:  “a body at rest wants to stay at rest.  The only way to change that state is to apply some external force.”  The energy stored by the car is “trapped”, which is a shame since that’s what’s going to get me down the hill and on my way home.  Unless Tony and Todd apply an external force by way of a push, I’m just going to sit there!

So they come to push, and once they’ve gotten me over the edge, the car starts to roll down the hill.  That push served to release potential energy, and potential energy is then converted into kinetic energy.  Now, height is “giving up” energy to speed, and I’m going faster down the hill.

There are two outcomes now.  Either my brakes work, or they don’t.  If they work, I have an effective way of dissipating and controlling that energy release, in such a fashion that I make it down the hill safely.

But what if the worst happens?  What if my brake pads were worn down?  What if the brake fluid had leaked out (remember, this is a junky car).   Regardless of the cause, what if the brakes simply don’t work?

Can anyone blame Tony and Todd for my injuries or my death?

No, and in fact, I should be the one held accountable for my lack of foresight and failure to work contingencies into my plan to get home.  Maybe I have to pay huge medical bills, or I lose my life, but either way, the consequences and the fault lie with me.

I could have done something to plan for that unlikely but possible brake failure, right?  What if I had put a barrier at the bottom of the hill?  What if I had taken the time to test my brakes before Tony and Todd pushed me?

Now, imagine that there is a stream and a house at the bottom of that cliff.   I knew that before I was pushed, but I didn’t plan accordingly, and as a result of the car going over the cliff, the house was destroyed, and the stream was polluted from the materials coming off my car, and some of the gas in the tank.

I knew about that house and the stream, and I knew there was a small risk my brakes could fail, but I didn’t plan for it.

Should I be held responsible for these damages which resulted as a lack of proper planning and foresight?

Absolutely!  Whether those damages are covered by insurance, or myself (after I get out of the hospital), or my estate, someone has to make whole the people living in the house and enjoying the stream.

Ok, so with that analogy and two small formulas (so far) in mind, let’s bring this story back to the realm of oil & gas.

In a reservoir, oil & gas are trapped in a defined volume of rocks.  There are different types of forces acting on this oil & gas, due to things like differences in fluid densities, and the weight of thousands of feet of heavy rock sitting on top of them.  The oil & gas are trapped, and cannot move unless an something is done to change the force balance on those substances.

So, just like the car sitting on top of the hill, there is stored energy in that reservoir.  Or, if you prefer to think of it this way, it’s like a balloon filled full of water:  there is a volume that’s holding back fluid.

Whenever you talk force, you can also talk pressure, which is just force over area:


Now, what if I multiply the top and bottom by units of length?

Then I have:


Thinking back to high school physics, what quantity equates to Force times Distance (length)?  Energy.  And Area times Length is volume.

So, we end up with the relation:


Think back to that second equation (E/h=mg), and see how I mathematically tie the reservoir back to the car analogy.  In both cases you simply have energy per “some unit that makes sense”.  For the hill that’s height, and in the case of the reservoir/balloon, it’s volume.

Where am I going with this?

Pushing the car down the hill or popping the balloon/fracing a well are the same thing!

Each one of those processes is simply allowing a release and then conversion of energy (before you mention chemicals, no less than the Department of Energy addressed that recently ).  The key is CONTROLLING that process (i.e. having working brakes, or properly collecting the water that comes out of the balloon).

This is where I want to involve people’s comments on spills, blowouts, and the message from celebrities against fracing.  Problems DO unfortunately occur, but these are preventable problems, and to call for the end of fracing entirely is misguided and doesn’t confront the honest reality that for now, we live in a hydrocarbon based world (though I will happily adopt alternatives as they become more readily available!).

The act itself of fracing is not a problem!

Just like Tony and Todd pushing me down a hill in my car, the frac itself isn’t the problem:  bad casing, bad cementing, improper job planning, poorly trained personnel, those are problems.  It’s unfortunate, but as you have all pointed out, these problems can and do contribute to blowouts, pipeline leaks, broken manifolding on the surface, or irresponsible drivers on the road.

Again, in the same way that Todd and Tony can’t be blamed for pushing down the hill, the ACT itself of fracing is inherently not the problem.

Could Liv Tyler, Sean Lennon, Yoko Ono et al form a coalition called “Celebrities Against Bad Casing Design”?  Or maybe “Celebrities for Properly Trained Truck Drivers and Strongly Enforced Department of Transportation Laws”?

These names definitely don’t have the same ring to them as “Celebrities Against Fracing”, but THOSE groups and coalitions, I would get behind.  If I ever had the privilege of standing shoulder to shoulder, side by side with all of these people, THOSE are the causes I would support if they were to adopt them.

Some people may bring up again an argument that came up often last week:  “companies only care about money”.  I would like to take this opportunity to address that head on.  As I have written before, strong, well enforced regulations have a place in the oilfield.  There is no excuse, none whatsoever, for companies cutting corners or compromising safety in any way to make more money or get the job done faster.

In exactly the same fashion that I would be responsible for damages if I knew there was a stream and a house at the bottom of the cliff, companies SHOULD be held accountable if they fail to plan properly for operations at the surface, and anything else that results from an uncontrolled release of energy and reservoir fluids after the frac.

In fact, there is actually a license which allows someone to be designated as a “Professional Engineer”, or “P.E.”  (since the Macondo incident, a P.E. has had to sign off on the construction plan of every new offshore well in the Gulf of Mexico). Obtaining this license is equivalent to a doctor becoming board certified, and the process is similarly rigorous.  One actually has to be allowed by other Professional Engineers to sit the exam, and one of the requirements to obtain this permission is years of apprenticeship under other Professional Engineers.

Furthermore, just like doctors who must obey the Hippocratic Oath and promise to “do no harm”, so also must engineers promise to keep always the safety and well being of the public as their top priority.  I have spoken with several P.E.s about this (I hope to sit the exam next year), and there is no question amongst any of us that compromising our ethics for a cheaper job is completely unacceptable.  The punishments for doing so are harsh (potential fines, revocation of license, jail time), and would be completely justified.

So what am I saying?

Looking back over all of this, I think there’s definitely enough material here for another song!

Sean, Yoko…

I’ll have my people call your people and we can work something out?