While there is now a local uproar about hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” an early iteration of the oil and gas extraction method actually has its roots in Boulder.
The modern-day version of fracking involves shooting a high-powered mixture of water, sand and chemicals down a well to release oil and natural gas. Historically, fracking was often accomplished by drilling a vertical well and creating fractures in a producing formation with explosives. But because the drilling was vertical, once a well reached an oil- and gas-laden formation, the fracking impact was limited, perhaps four to 80 feet depending on the thickness of the producing layer of rock.
Now, with the advent of “horizontal drilling,” companies can drill down — and then across producing formations for greater distances — magnifying the impact of fracking in two ways. First, what historically might have been fracked in a six-foot-thick formation can, today, become hundreds of feet of fracked rock in the same formation because the layer of rock is drilled across, instead of down. And second, because a horizontal well is fracked towards the top and bottom of a producing formation that may only be a few feet thick, it increases the chance of releasing hydrocarbons into surrounding layers of rock that can be holding water.
The practice has raised concerns locally in Longmont, Erie and even unincorporated Boulder County, which have all enacted moratoriums on oil and gas drilling because of concerns about environmental and health effects.
Back in the 1800s, the extraction methods were much more crude.
Civil War veteran Col. Edward Roberts is given credit for creating the first “torpedo” filled with gunpowder (and later with nitroglycerin) in 1866. The contraption was lowered into wells that were then filled with water before the explosive was detonated. The effect was dramatic, with some wells’ production increasing 1,200 percent, according to the American Oil and Gas Historical Society.
Years later, Warren F. Bleecker, whose mill at Third and Pearl in Boulder is believed to have produced the radioactive soil that the city of Boulder shipped off to Valmont Butte in 1971, created an even more effective method of fracking.
Bleecker was an inventor, metallurgist, chemist and physicist. Educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Colorado at Boulder, he first worked in Boulder as a teacher of high school chemistry and physics, according to “Time Bombs and Radiation,” a 1994 article by Tom Meier of the Boulder Museum of History.
In the early 1900s, Bleecker operated facilities that produced tungsten, vanadium and radium in various locations, including at the Preston Mill west of Ninth Street on Boulder Creek, the Luckie Two Mill at the intersection of Pearl and Canyon streets, and an electrical furnace plant at Third and Pearl.
One of Bleecker’s greatest accomplishments, aside from being a state legislator and a gubernatorial candidate, was his development of a technology called the “time-bomb.” The invention, which he took over after an explosion claimed the life of its Oklahoma inventor in 1924, was designed to detonate nitroglycerin charges in oil wells.
“The explosions were intended to fracture the oil-bearing rock and facilitate a better flow of oil,” Meier wrote. “Employing his exacting research and engineering skills, Bleecker turned the crude, hazardous, hit-and-miss occupation of an ‘oil shooter’ into a safer procedure.
Within a few years, his Boulder product was in demand in the oil fields of Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, and, eventually, throughout the world.”
Indeed, judging from newspaper accounts at the time, Bleeker’s fracking “time-bombs,” or “zero-hour torpedoes,” made a splash. In 1926, Bleecker sent two employees to Tulsa, Okla., to develop a manufacturing facility for a special paper tubing to be used for “loading” wells that were to be shot with nitroglycerine. The paper tubing was believed to have advantages over the tin cans traditionally used in the process, because they were waterproof, resisted friction when lowered into the well, could be sized more easily and would be destroyed when exploded, unlike tin, which could block casing with fragments of metal.
“There is, in addition, the ever-present element of personal danger, which is thrilling both in the sense of anticipation and of past experience, but a thing to most of us to be avoided at the present moment,” he was quoted as saying.
After the nitroglycerine was deposited in wells in shells or cans, the removal of the line used to insert them would cause some earth to cave in, requiring the insertion of Bleecker’s “time-bombs” to ignite the explosive material below the cavings. According to newspaper reports at the time, his device consisted of a battery and a time piece encased by the insulating tube, with an explosive charge at the bottom in a water-tight cast-iron shell.
At one point, he won a patentinfringement case for his “time-bomb” in federal court, and was credited with accomplishing “a rather ticklish shooting job, overcoming unusual conditions” in an Oklahoma City field in 1930, according to the Tulsa Daily World. In that job, Bleecker succeeded in developing in Boulder a specially designed zero-hour time bomb with two small Swiss watches that were lowered into a hole “with a Halliburton measuring line to a depth of 6,374 feet” where a three-inch drill pipe had been “frozen in the well and had parted,” the paper reported.
And according to an August 1931 newspaper article, the chief of the special service of the Santa Fe railway system sought Bleecker’s advice about an apparent terrorist attack: Someone had placed explosives under gasoline tanks at the railroad right-of-way at La Junta, but had not succeeded in detonating them.
In January of 1936, Bleecker had surgery to remove a tumor from his right lung. He died in April of that year.
Bleecker’s refinery at Third and Pearl was never reopened, and the City of Boulder Street and Water Departments took over the space in 1931.
—Hadley Vandiver contributed to this report