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DOE's Early Investment in Shale Gas Technology Producing Results Today

February 2, 2011 - 12:00pm


Washington, DC - A $92 million research investment in the 1970s by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is today being credited with technological contributions that have stimulated development of domestic natural gas from shales. The result: more U.S. jobs, increased energy security, and higher revenues for states and the Federal Government.

Spurred by the technological advancements resulting from this investment, U.S. shale gas production continues to grow, amounting to more than 8 billion cubic feet per day, or about 14 percent of the total volume of dry natural gas produced in the United States.

DOE’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects that the shale gas share of U.S. natural gas production will reach 45 percent by 2035. The EIA also projects that 827 trillion cubic feet of natural gas is now recoverable from U.S. shales using currently available technology--an increase of nearly 500 trillion cubic feet over earlier estimates.

More than 30 years ago, fears of dwindling domestic natural gas supplies pushed researchers to examine alternative sources of natural gas such as Devonian shales, coals, and low permeability or "tight" sands. Recognizing the need for research and development to quantify these unconventional reservoirs and to develop ways to produce them, DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy invested in Devonian shale research from 1977 through 1992, matching technology to complex geology for various geologic settings.

Through programs focused on Eastern gas shales, Western gas sands, and methane from coalbeds, DOE developed and stimulated the deployment of advanced exploration and production technologies. These technologies recovered new gas supplies from unconventional gas resources by increasing per-well gas-recovery efficiencies and lowering unit development costs.

DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) employed a detailed resource characterization and technology development approach that geologically partitioned each natural gas resource and matched technology to geology to chart a path for resource development. More than 25,000 feet of oriented core and well log data from 35 cored shale wells provided the basic core and geologic data used to prepare the first publicly available estimates of technically recoverable gas for the Huron shales in West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky.

In 1986, DOE collaborated with industry to achieve a significant milestone: the first air-drilled 2,000-foot-long horizontal Devonian shale well in the Appalachian Basin. This also marked the first recovery of core from a horizontal air-drilled shale well and the first successful use of external casing packers in an air-filled wellbore. Through 1992, DOE also worked with industry to complete three additional 2,000-foot-long horizontal wells containing multiple hydraulically fractured zones and to develop more efficient downhole tools, such as electromagnetic measurement-while-drilling and directional air hammer technology, both of which are currently used by the oilfield service industry.

Another example of early DOE leadership in the development of technologies applicable to shale gas development is fracture mapping--techniques for using seismic responses to identify the orientation and extent of hydraulically created fractures. Today, a number of companies successfully map hydraulic fractures, including many in the major shale gas plays.

Developing domestic natural gas resources means additional jobs when wells are drilled, pipelines are constructed, and production facilities are built and operated. Larger volumes of domestic natural gas also translate into lower fuel or feedstock prices for industries that use natural gas to process or manufacture products. As a result, fewer jobs are lost to lower-cost overseas competitors and prices are lower for consumers. In addition, increased domestic natural gas production improves national energy security and results in higher tax revenues to states and the Federal Government.

In a recent paper entitled Thirty Years of Gas Shale Fracturing: What Have We Learned?, DOE research is recognized for enabling several technology breakthroughs in shale gas development. Presented at the Society of Petroleum Engineers’ 2010 Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition, the paper reviews more than 350 technical papers and presentations on shale-specific well completions, fracturing, and operations. The paper’s author, George E. King, Global Technology Consultant for Apache Corporation, credits DOE for its early leadership in the development of several key technologies that are driving the current growth in shale gas production, including reservoir characterization, horizontal drilling, and multi-stage fracturing and slick water fracturing.

DOE’s leadership in shale gas development is receiving similar recognition from others. According to Dr. Terry Engelder, Professor of Geosciences at Penn State University, DOE’s Eastern Gas Shales Research Program "helped expand the limits of gas shale production and increased understanding of production mechanisms . . . It is one of the great examples of value-added work led by the DOE."