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At the cutting edge

02nd November 2012

Experts from the US Department of Energy’s national energy technology laboratory (NETL) explain how heavy investment in R&D, field testing new technologies, quantifying risks and computational tools are driving unprecedented levels of success in the nation’s oil and gas sector

At the cutting edge
Tomorrow’s world – US Oil & Gas innovation is hotting up

OGT: How is NETL working to improve technology used to extract shale gas?

DoE: Over the past five years NETL has actively engaged in research to develop more efficient and more cost effective methods for treating hydraulic fracture flowback water from shale gas wells. In addition, NETL has carried out research focused on characterising shales in frontier basins (e.g., New Albany Shale and shale formations inAlabama), improved analytical techniques to optimise hydraulic fracturing in gas shales, and techniques for choosing the best candidate wells for re-fracturing.

Historically (1970s to 1990s), NETL has played an important role in catalysing the early application of horizontal drilling and innovative hydraulic fracturing techniques in gas shales. Examples include, electromagnetic MWD for air drilled wells, foam fracturing, underbalanced horizontal drilling in Appalachian gas shales, CO2  sand fracturing, multiple hydraulic fractures along a horizontal wellbore, and micro-seismic fracture mapping.

NETL is conducting research in the areas of resource characterisation, hydraulic fracturing, water management, water treatment, minimising surface impacts, and environmental monitoring.

OGT: What technology is in development to help characterise more accurately the geology of emerging shale plays?

DoE: NETL is currently working to characterise gas shale reservoirs using geochemical analysis and develop a methodology to determine the depositional environment and distribution of gas and oil enriched horizons in a study area of the Marcellus shale through detailed chemo-stratigraphic interpretation. Chemo-stratigraphy can potentially be used to identify wellbore placement within the most productive horizons of the Marcellus formation.

NETL also has several ongoing projects to determine the resource potential and better understand the geologic characteristics of shale plays such as thermal maturity, thickness, natural fractures, etc.

OGT: How can the industry accelerate the development of technologies that can reduce the environmental impacts of shale play development? What challenges remain?

DoE: Acceleration can occur through increased R&D and field testing of new technologies. Industry will always be challenged by the public and environmentalist to do more.

OGT: Could you give details on the research you are funding to advance deepwater discoveries to maximise oil and gas recovery?

DoE: NETL is conducting research in the areas of well construction, downhole intervention, reservoir characterisation and appraisal, improved recovery, risers, and subsea processing.

OGT: Are there any new subsea production systems in development?

DoE: NETL is conducting research in the areas of subsea processing and boosting, stabilised flow, and power generation transmission and distribution.

OGT: How do you quantify environmental risks of deepwater development?

DoE: NETL is focused on building computational tools that enable science-based predictions of the behaviour of offshore systems, including a platform to allow rapid access to key data needs for quantitative risk assessment.

OGT:  How are you working to improve the cost effectiveness and enhance operation safety of offshore architecture?

DoE: Since the Macondo incident, safety and the environment has been a major thrust of the offshore research being conducted by NETL. Many research projects discussed in the research areas listed in question #4 will help enhance operational safety.

OGT:  Can technology innovate to produce greater yields whilst at the same time reduce its environmental footprint? If so, how and what more could be done?

DoE: Yes. A great example of this is shale gas development. The application of horizontal drilling and multi-stage hydraulic fracturing allows gas operators to produce gas over very large areas with minimal impact to the surface relative to the same number of vertical wells that would have to be drilled to recover the same volume of gas.

At the moment, the focus could be on further improvements to the hydraulic fracturing process (e.g., new fracturing fluids) to allow a higher percentage of the hydrocarbons in place to be produced.

OGT:  How can the industry prevent exploration and production from harming the environment? Is there research specifically focused in this area?

DoE: Exploration and production doesn’t necessarily “harm” the environment. Shale gas development is an industrial process and entails environmental impacts (e.g., roads, drilling pads, pipeline construction) that cannot be avoided. These are not generally considered to be harming the environment in most cases. There are risks of environmental damage from shale gas development (e.g., a well blowout) but these are small. Industry continually develops technologies to reduce such risks even further as it is in its economic interest to do so.

NETL’s research portfolio currently includes a number of initiatives focused on quantifying the risks of oil and gas drilling and production activities, both in onshore unconventional natural gas plays and in ultra-deepwater environments. Quantifying the risks will help companies and policymakers better understand the relationship between potential costs and benefits, and develop practices and regulations that can optimise benefits.

Environmental changes that are coincident with different stages of unconventional oil and gas development must be identified and baselined.  NETL has conducted pre-development air and water quality monitoring and an avian population/habitat evaluation at a proposed multi-well pad in the liquid-rich window of the Marcellus Shale.  NETL has plans to continue to monitor these parameters as the location progresses through: 1) site construction, 2) the drilling of two horizontal shale gas wells, 3) well completion activities, 4) early production, and 5) well pad remediation.

OGT: What more needs to be done to gain further insight into the behaviour of hydrocarbon mixtures as they move from extremely deep rock formations, through complicated subsea piping systems, to surface facilities?

DoE: Uncertainties in hydrocarbon properties under in situ conditions (extremely high temperatures and pressures) are key factors impacting the accuracy of predictions of hydrocarbon behavior and volumes both in the subsurface and as they are produced to the surface. Two projects focus on improving the science base for multiphase fluids at extreme conditions include: quantifying complex fluid-phase properties at high pressure/high temperature; and improving deepwater drilling safety through enhanced understanding of multiphase flow dynamics of hydrocarbon mixtures.

OGT: Could you tell OGT about the new Hydrate Research Projects NETL has just selected and what technology is involved in these?

DoE: The new research projects specifically target: field programs enabling collection of data from deepwater gas-hydrate-bearing sands and associated seals; the development of tools and collection of data to assist in understanding reservoir response and environmental impacts of hydrate production testing; and field sampling and modeling efforts to constrain methane dynamics in gas-hydrate-bearing areas most sensitive to environmental change.

Selected projects will facilitate deepwater hydrate characterisation through efforts including planning of marine hydrate pressure coring research expedition(s), evaluation of available well log data for potential evidence of hydrate occurrence, and development of enhanced hydrate-focused seismic modeling and inversion techniques. Others will enhance our understanding of the response of methane hydrate systems to changing climates through the collection and analysis of field data from environmentally sensitive regions inAlaskaand through the development of new models and analytical techniques.  Still others will result in advances in the understanding of gas-hydrate-bearing sediments by evaluating their fundamental characteristics using lab-based experimental efforts and the development of specialised numerical models.

RB: We selected 14 new projects that address a range of science and technology development issues.  The projects include efforts to: better interpret the occurrence of gas hydrates and associated free gas from seismic data; understand the flow of fluids through dissociating hydrate-bearing sediments; develop plans for deep marine drilling/coring operations; investigate industry well data in the Gulf of Mexico for evidence of gas hydrates;  assess the role hydrate plays in mediating the movement of methane between sediments and the ocean; and determine the current state and predict the future behavior of hydrates associated with degrading permafrost in the arctic.

OGT: How are you hoping to improve the performance and lower the cost of chemical floods, as well as find ways to accelerate their application by independent producers?

DoE: NETL is investigating laboratory and field testing of improved chemicals for recovering remaining oil resources.

Two successful projects write-ups can be found on our websites:

This interview was conducted with the help of experts at the NETL’s Strategic Center for Natural Gas & Oil at NETL, including director, John Duda and technology manager Ray Boswell.