Cover story: A 'quiet' fracking fleet sets sail.

Cathy Proctor
Denver Business Journal
February 16, 2018

“I could hear birds chirping ... What they were doing is impressive.”

Among the millions of videos uploaded to YouTube, there’s one about 18 seconds long that shows a fracking operation underway near a neighborhood in northern Colorado in the summer of 2016.

In the video, a voice narrates over pictures of a suburban yard. About 500 feet away are soundwalls used by the oil and gas industry to minimize the noise from wellsites near communities. But the videographer is focused on what’s happening behind the tan walls.

“We’re standing right next to the houses that are about 500 feet away, and right now we’re fracking at 80 barrels a minute. See if you can hear it.”

What happens next showcases the future oil and gas industry Colorado, and represents two years of work by Denver-based Liberty Oilfield Services to develop what it calls a “Quiet Fleet” of hydraulic fracturing engines.

The company invested millions of dollars and thousands of hours of engineering, tinkering, trial and error in taming the powerful — and noisy — engines that drive fracking operations at the heart of the nation’s boom in oil and gas production.

In the video the sound of footsteps crunching on gravel and unseen birds chirping can be heard.

“You can’t hear anything,” the voice says, referring to the fracking operation underway just beyond the soundwalls.

The voice belongs to Matt Owens, the president and co-founder of Extraction Oil & Gas Inc., a Denver-based company built on finding and producing oil and gas from the rock formations that lie thousands of feet under the fast-growing communities along Colorado’s northern Front Range.

That strategy has put the company’s drilling rigs and fracking operations very near to homes and neighborhoods. And it’s driven Owens and his co-workers to figure out how Extraction — and other players in the state’s $31-billion-a- year industry — might co-exist with Colorado’s growing population.

Conflict over oil and gas operations near burgeoning communities in Colorado has risen in the last few years, particularly on the northern Front Range, where one of the nation’s biggest and most successful oil and gas fields, the Denver-Julesburg Basin, lies thousands of feet under homes, schools and playgrounds.

That proximity has pushed energy companies to up their game in communicating with local officials and neighborhoods, and reducing the industry’s impact on communities and the environment.

“That’s the reason we [Extraction] did soundwalls [around drilling sites]. That’s why we figured out how to run drilling rigs off electricity [rather than noisy diesel engines], to use the fire hydrants or ditch systems to get water to drilling sites instead of sending 5,000 trucks through neighborhoods,” Owens said.

‘There’s huge demand

And that’s why Owens asked Chris Wright, the CEO of Denver-based Liberty Oilfield Services, what that company could do to quiet the engines driving fracking operations.

“I teased him,” Owens recalled. “I told him, ‘We got our drilling rigs to be quiet; why can’t we make our frack fleets quiet?’”

Wright took on the challenge, although he knew going in it would be difficult to tame the noise.

“A drilling rig is 1,500 horsepower and a frack fleet is 45,000 horsepower. It’s 30 times more powerful than a drilling rig. It’s a more intensive process that tends to have more noise — equivalent to a 747 jet engine,” Wright said.

Wright figured it would take a few months of tinkering to trim noise levels from fracking engines. It took far longer — two years — to do it, but Wright says the investment was worth it.

At the end of 2017, Liberty, which recently went public, had 19 fracking fleets available for hire, including five sets of its Quiet Fleet, all of which were operating in Colorado. A sixth Quiet Fleet is scheduled for completion during the first quarter of 2018, with more rolling off an Oklahoma manufacturing line after that, Wright said.

“There’s huge demand. Essentially, all the operators who are drilling near houses or occupied structures want to do it with the Quiet Fleet,” he said.

Those operators are willing to pay a premium for it. Hiring Liberty’s Quiet Fleet increases the cost of a well by about 2 percent, according to the company.

Wright figures Liberty’s Quiet Fleet, when operating at full capacity, is at least three times quieter than similarly sized fracking fleets run by competitors — who so far have failed to replicate Liberty’s success.

Liberty figures the Quiet Fleet’s noise levels for homes 500 feet away are about 60 decibels, equivalent to a normal conversation three feet away. At 1,000 feet, the fleet’s 50-decibel noise level is equivalent to that of noise around an urban home.

Not only do the quieter fracking operations benefit the neighborhoods, but they’re also better for the employees who work on site, Wright said.

Wright said Liberty’s new fracking fleets are so quiet that the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which monitors worker health and safety conditions, told the company its employees don’t need headphones to protect their hearing while working on site. Workers still wear them, but their primary function is to help the crew communicate across the site rather than safety, he said.

“All the fleets we build going forward will be Quiet Fleet technology,” Wright said. “Even if we’re out in the middle of Texas, in the middle of nowhere, all the people who work on those fleets will be working in a quieter environment.”

More noise complaints

A drilling rig can be made much quieter by plugging it into the electrical grid, as Extraction first did in 2014. But the power demands of fracking equipment are much bigger, requiring more diesel-fueled engines, which are noisy by nature, according to Wright and Owens.

For decades, noise wasn’t an issue in the oil and gas patch — because for decades, the rigs were stationed in farmers’ fields. But that’s changed in recent years.

Horizontal drilling, in which well bores run laterally through rock formations for more than a mile, coupled with fracking, opened up basins previously ignored as too expensive and difficult to drill profitably.

Fracking uses water, sand and chemicals pumped under high pressure to crack underground rock layers. Grains of sand prop open the cracks, allowing oil and natural gas molecules to flow around them, following the crack through the rock and into the well. The technique, coupled with horizontal drilling, resulted in record-breaking oil and gas production in Colorado and across the United States in recent years and overwhelmed global demand.

But the powerful engines that drive fracking operations, 45,000 horsepower strong, are noisy. And one of the most common complaints from neighborhoods about oil and gas operations are complaints about noise from drilling and fracking.

The number of noise complaints lodged with the state has grown over the years as drilling rigs have moved closer to neighborhoods.

In 2010, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), which oversees the industry, recorded just 22 complaints about noise from drilling rigs. Four years later, in 2014, the number had grown to 97.

Then the complaints started climbing, hitting 126 in 2015, and 723 in 2017 — a year marked by controversial drilling operations in Erie and Greeley.

Like Extraction, Liberty has worked to minimize its impact in Colorado. Shortly after it started operating in Colorado in 2013, the company changed how it handles the huge amounts of sand used in fracking.

In traditional fracking operations, a truck delivers 50,000 pounds of sand to a well site. A giant, noisy, blower blows the sand from the truck bed into containers, creating a cloud of dust in the process. It takes 45 minutes to move a single load, while additional trucks idle in line, waiting their turn, Wright said.

As the amount of sand used in fracking has grown, so has the number of trucks, the clouds of dust and noise of the blower.

“Eighty percent of the fracking across the country is still done this way,” Wright said. “Five or six years ago, we’d do eight trucks of sand per day — but we’ve also done 180 trucks of sand per day.”

Then, three years ago, Liberty ditched the blowers — and the attendant noise and dust — by switching to what Wright says is a faster, quieter, better system in which trucks deliver big steel boxes of full of sand.

Rather than blowers, forklifts maneuver the red-painted, steel containers — emblazoned with Liberty’s logo — off the truck and onto a conveyor belt. When the sand is needed, a funnel below the container is opened and gravity delivers the sand into the fracking system.

“The noise is gone, the dust cloud is gone — and we can off-load a truck’s worth of 50,000 pounds of sand in five minutes, versus 45,” Wright said.

Fighting fire risk

Liberty set the bar high for its new Quiet Fleet.

Colorado requires new oil and gas wells be at least 500 feet from homes. Liberty wanted the noise from its Quiet Fleet to blend in with background, ambient noise levels at that distance, Wright said, laughing at how he naively thought the problem could be solved in six months.

“We didn’t know what to do, and it was trial and error for two years. Thinking of the problem, then the solution and then quickly testing it and modifying it,” he said, crediting the company’s engineers and manufacturing partners for the work they did.

“Reality is always way more complicated than we think it is.”

Rather than a single solution, the Quiet Fleet is the result of several innovations and modifications — including encasing the engines in a compartment that has several inches of foam, a “proprietary sound suppression material,” Wright said.

The material has benefits beyond its ability to dampen noise. It’s also part of a fire-suppression system that Liberty incorporated into the new fleets.

Fires in fracking equipment are an industry hazard — given the amount of pressure, number of engines and the fuel involved.

Once the engines were wrapped in foam compartments, it was simple for Liberty to add sensors inside the compartments to warn workers if a fire starts, allowing them to turn off equipment immediately, Wright said.

The company also added systems that can flood the compartments with nitrogen, which starves the fire of oxygen, and fire retardant, he said.

“We spent millions of dollars and thousands of hours developing something for our customers. They [Extraction] had a problem, and we wanted to fix it for them — and we knew if we could fix it for them then we could fix it for Anadarko [Petroleum Corp.] and the other operators,” he said.

‘I could hear birds chirping’

Owens and Wright knew what they wanted from the Quiet Fleet, but the result still shocked both men, who smile and laugh when talking of the Quiet Fleet’s debut in the summer of 2016, in a neighborhood in the Weld County town of Firestone.

Extraction had drilled the site earlier in the year, then waited months for Liberty’s Quiet Fleet to arrive. The company had talked extensively with people in the neighborhood about the drilling and subsequent fracking operation.

Neighbors were told fracking would start on a Monday, but Liberty arrived a few days ahead of schedule and went to work, Wright recalled.

“We got there on Friday, and were fracking Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday — on Wednesday, someone from the homeowners association walked over and asked our guys, ‘When are you going to start?’” Wright said.

“We told them, ‘We’re nearly halfway done.’”

Owens remembers his first visit to the site.

“I was walking for an hour between the trucks. It was so weird being on location and not having to cover your ears while you’re walking between 45,000 horsepower engines,” Owens remembered.

“I couldn’t get over how quiet it was. I drove to the neighborhood — the closest [home] was 550 feet away — and I walked up and down the sidewalk, videotaping with my cell phone and talking. And you could hear me just fine, and the birds chirping and the rocks I was stepping on — it was so weird,” Owens said.

Several months later, in the spring of 2017, Extraction took a group from Broomfield’s oil and gas citizens committee on an operations tour, including an electric drilling rig and a Quiet Fleet frack job. At the time, the committee was working on recommendations for how Extraction’s plan to drill new horizontal wells should be conducted in Broomfield.

On May 23, 2017, committee members updated Broomfield’s city council on its work — including noise readings taken during the tour.

The Quiet Fleet, inside the sound barriers, operated at sound decibel levels in the mid-60s, compared to the 75 decibels recorded in the city council room before the meeting was called to order, committee member Susan Speece told council members.

Outside the soundwalls, “I couldn’t detect any noise from inside the soundwalls coming from the site,” committee member Robert Pearce told the council that same night.

“I could hear birds chirping, a plane flying over and traffic .. and the wind. But nothing from the site and we were within 300 feet of the soundwall. What they were doing is impressive.”