From Bureau of Economic Geology, The University of Texas at Austin (
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Upstream Technology for the Coming Gas Economy

Scott W. Tinker


U.S. energy consumption trends can be used as a proxy for global energy consumption trends. Prior to 1970, energy consumption in the United States, and the world, followed a very predictable "decarbonization" trend from carbon-based solid fuels of wood and coal, to carbon-based liquid fuels of oil and condensate, to hydrogen-based natural gas. In the mid-1970s, the decarbonization consumption trend was interrupted by oil and gas price volatility, and technology allowed solid, liquid, and gas consumption percentages to "freeze" for nearly three decades in the United States. Over the next half century, energy efficiency, economic stability, environmental quality, and resource sustainability will combine to drive U.S. and global energy consumption trends toward an ever-greater percentage of natural gas, hydrogen, nuclear energy, and renewables. The natural gas component of the energy mix will be increasingly satisfied by unconventional sources such as tight gas, shale gas, coalbed methane, deepwater, subsalt, deep gas (>5,000 m), and gas hydrates.

The shift from a liquid to gas global economy will be gradual over the next five decades and will require an integrated and collaborative research and technology partnership between government, industry, and academia. In terms of oil, application of advanced reservoir characterization technology and field management strategies to major fields worldwide will improve reservoir recovery efficiency and help bridge the gap to natural gas. For unconventional natural gas, numerical and geomechanical modeling and flow simulation of fractures will be an important research field. Direct-observation methods such as cathodoluminescent scanning electron microscopy will provide critical input to describe and predict fracture aperture, orientation, spacing, clustering, geometry, relation to lithology, and cementation. Physical and numerical modeling of salt to understand origin, mechanics, geometry, movement, and petrophysical variation will also be fundamental to successful exploitation of unconventional gas. Multi-component seismic research will also be vital to an unconventional natural gas future. Key areas for collaborative seismic research include rock physics, high-frequency sequence stratigraphy, nine-component three-dimensional (9C/3D) and four-component three-dimensional (4C/3D) seismic acquisition, processing, and analysis, air- and land-based remote sensing, and continued advancements in seismic inversion, seismic attribute, and amplitude versus offset (AVO) analysis.