Answer by Russell Gold, Author of The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World , Wall Street Journal senior energy writer
The modern era of hydraulic fracturing began in June 1998, at a well several miles north of Fort Worth. A completion engineer, working for Mitchell Energy & Development, had proposed using large amounts of water and pressure to break up the Barnett Shale. He received permission to frack three wells, but his efforts failed. He received permission for three more. His fifth attempt was successful and was the first "slick-water" frack using water mixed with chemicals. The success of the new approach - more pumping horsepower - was replicated in other wells around Fort Worth and later exported, successfully, to other states.
The idea of using a liquid, under pressure, to create cracks, or fractures, in rocks with oil and natural gas goes back about five decades before the 1998 well. Researchers at Stanolind Oil's research facility in Tulsa noticed that cement used to seal up the outside of wells was sometimes lost. A researcher hypothesized that the weight of the cement was cracking the rocks and some volume of it was escaping into the formation. He decided to test if he could intentionally create cracks in the rock.
In November 1946, Stanolind researcher tested using a liquid to create fractures in the Hugoton natural gas field in southwestern Kansas. Water mixed with napalm left over from World War II, and used to reduce friction, was used. It was successful. The Stanolind team called it a "hydrafrac treatment" and was awarded several patents for the invention. It was exclusively licensed to the Halliburton Oil Well Cementing Company for a time.
The idea that creating fractures in rocks could make wells produce more oil dates back to the dawn of the petroleum age. In 1866, an inventor lowered a "torpedo" to the bottom of an existing oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, filled the well with water, and then detonated the charge. The weight of the water forced the explosion into the rock and the test well began flowing more oil than before. Torpedo soon became a common oilfield stimulation technique.
Amazingly enough, the federal government once tried using nuclear explosions to frack wells.
In 1967, scientists detonated a 29-kiloton bomb near Farmington, New Mexico, in a gas well. This was part of "Project Plowshare" which attempted to find peaceful uses for nuclear power. The bomb was effective in clearing out a cavity and boosting gas flow, but the gas was laced with radioactive tritium and other isotopes. Another underground blast occurred near Rulison, Colorado, in 1969.
In 1971, President Richard Nixon praised the effort. He said that finding more natural gas to heat homes was a pressing national need and praised "nuclear stimulation experiments which seek to produce natural gas from tight geological formations." Plans were drafted for a series of blasts in Wyoming in the early 1970s, but protests against the explosions grew and the state's only congressman eliminated funding.