Hydro Fracturing
Continues to Impress


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Hydraulic fracturing continues to feed the boom in U.S. energy production, building on greater efficiencies in drilling that generate more productive wells. The boom has pushed energy prices lower, allowing the U.S. to better compete in energy-intensive markets such as steel and chemicals. As the industry evolves, researchers say even better tools and techniques are being developed to exploit shale oil and gas, and producers are relying on different skill sets to find and tap unconventional plays.

“The world has completely flipped here in a short period of time,” said Ken DeCubellis, CEO of Black Ridge Oil and Gas Co., Minnetonka, MN. “The U.S. now has a cost advantage over China in polyethylene production” due to lower fuel costs emanating from the ‘Shale Gale.’”

Efficiency and Production

DeCubellis is not the only one marveling at the pace of drilling in North Dakota’s Bakken, Pennsylvania and Ohio’s Marcellus, Texas’s Eagle Ford and other shale formations. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing precision and efficiency are the reasons productivity is steadily increasing across shale plays in the U.S. The agency reports that a rig completed in April 2014 in the Marcellus formation is expected to yield over 6 million cubic feet per day of natural gas more than a well completed in the same formation in 2007. For oil, agency data show each rig in the Eagle Ford formation will pull over 400 barrels per day more than it would have in that formation in 2007.

For DeCubellis and others attending ASME’s recent Energy Forum conference, Shale Development and Hydraulic Fracturing, in San Diego, the rapid development of shale resources means a host of opportunities. Technical advances in equipment and drilling techniques dovetail with increased environmental safeguards and research. Skillsets also are shifting.

“Rock mechanics is the new petrophysics,” said Martin Rylance, senior team leader within BP Global Wells Organization. Rylance and others pointed out the diversity in shale plays, even in small distances within the same formation. Unlike conventional wells that draw oil or gas straight from underground reservoirs, fracking creates a collection system, allowing oil or gas to seep into the well for recovery. Understanding how such rocks behave is critical to success.

US shale gas production. Source: LCI Energy Insight gross withdrawal estimates as of January 2013. Image: Wikimedia Commons

 

Rapid Pace

But the fast pace of development has other impacts. Torstein Hole, senior vice president of Norway’s Statoil, said “it has been impossible” for pipelines and other infrastructure to stay ahead or even pace development in the Bakken. There, natural gas is being flared because there is no way yet to get it to market.

Hole said Statoil is beginning to reduce the waste through rigs fueled by natural gas and diesel. “We want to use as much gas [as possible] locally, to reduce flaring and reduce our power costs,” he said. “We want the highest possible income from each well.” Hole said other methods, such as carbon dioxide injection as a means of fracturing, are in play for the future.

Others said it was time for the industry to begin gathering and quantifying data from the thousands of wells that have already been bored. “We are drilling so many wells … especially in the same formations,” noted Fersheed Mody, manager of global research and development for Apache Corp., Houston, TX. He feels analysis of such data will help in bringing a greater degree of automation to drilling, making the process more profitable. “Industry needs to work on automation,” he said.

Research

Industry already is working on new equipment and techniques to more efficiently drill wells and recover oil and gas, and it is paying attention to criticism from landowners over noise and emissions, as well as groundwater contamination. "Maybe we have to move to some technology that does not have [such a large] environmental footprint,” said Kent Perry, vice president of onshore programs for RPSEA, a Houston-based research program concentrating on unconventional resources.

Perry says research into cryogenic fracturing promises to push the technology forward, although not for the immediate future, and development of a cable saw for well stimulation would create a slot, rather than a fracture, for better oil and gas recovery.

Perhaps the most productive work will come from dealing with the large amounts of water and wastewater needed for and produced by fracking. “The biggest waste steam is processed water and there is a potential product there,” said Perry. Separating salts and chemicals from the waste stream for reuse or sale promise to make the process cheaper and potentially a product for resale. Reusing the clean wastewater also could be cost effective.

Statoil’s Hole concurred, saying that public perception and environmental concerns must be addressed early and often in planning and production. “We know our well-bore construction is very good” but many landowners and politicians are unfamiliar with how hydraulic fracturing is done, and what unexpected underground conditions may be found.

“Sometimes you just have some methane in waterwells” at a shallower level than the actual depth of the well, leading to unexpected emissions, he said. “It has nothing to do with our operations. We as an industry have to come with information and be very open with the way we’re doing business.”

Listen to a podcast with Torstein Hole, senior vice president of Norway’s Statoil.

We are drilling so many wells ... especially in the same formations. Industry needs to work on automation.

Farsheed Mody,
Apache Corp.

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April 2014

by John Kosowatz, Senior Editor, ASME.org