Watching Government: The road to breakthroughs

April 23, 2012
Occasionally, it's good to remember that decades of research and development normally precede technological breakthroughs.

Occasionally, it's good to remember that decades of research and development normally precede technological breakthroughs. Such efforts are required to lay the foundation for dramatic "Aha!" moments, such as the first time hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling were successfully combined to produce natural gas from tight shale formations.

"Research enabled this revolution," Ron Edelstein, regulatory and government relations director at the Gas Technology Institute, said on Apr. 10. "But you couldn't do this kind of research in the laboratory. You had to do it in the field."

Industry led the way, with significant government support, he told an audience at the US Energy Association. "One of the biggest challenges was changing hydraulic fracturing from an art which had been going on since the 1940s into a science," he said.

Producing more unconventional gas domestically became a gas industry priority by the 1980s as growing demand put more pressure on conventional supplies, he continued.

Opportunities sometimes came from surprising places. Edelstein noted that coalbed methane, one of the earliest unconventional gases, was a problem the mining industry called "moonbeam gas" in 1982. Early CBM wells could be drilled because of the production tax credit which existed at the time, he said.

Meanwhile, GTI's two industry-supported predecessors, which merged in 2000, researched ways to produce more gas in Appalachia. "These were not the deep wells we're talking about now, but shallow vertical wells," Edelstein said. "You couldn't drill through shales and formations."

Once the production tax credit expired, these efforts became uneconomic. But there were accomplishments with recompletions in the late '80s and early '90s that are not as common now, the GTI official said.

Water management

CBM production growth in the '90s led to environmental concerns over produced water, generating solutions which provided the basis for today's shale water handling techniques, he noted. Emissions control management followed a similar course.

Section 199 of the 2005 Energy Policy Act created the Research Partnership for Secure Energy in America (RPSEA), according to Edelstein. Of the $50 million/year it receives, $16.3 million goes to unconventional gas, he said.

Basic research in the US Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratories also contributed. "The beauty of horizontal drilling, which DOE helped pioneer, is that you can follow the pay zone through formations," Edelstein said. "Now, if we could reduce water used in each fracture by 10-30%, it would make a huge difference."

The investment was worth it, he pointed out. "$1 billion of government support, plus GTI's investment, spent over 30 years of R&D is producing $24-240 billion/year of benefits," he said. Most important, there's still work to be done, Edelstein emphasized.

More Oil & Gas Journal Current Issue Articles
More Oil & Gas Journal Archives Issue Articles
View Oil and Gas Articles on

About the Author

Nick Snow

NICK SNOW covered oil and gas in Washington for more than 30 years. He worked in several capacities for The Oil Daily and was founding editor of Petroleum Finance Week before joining OGJ as its Washington correspondent in September 2005 and becoming its full-time Washington editor in October 2007. He retired from OGJ in January 2020.