The Bureau of Economic Geology The University of Texas at Austin Jackson School of Geosciences
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Energy Research

The BEG has been engaged in unconventional gas research for several decades. BEG's strengths in unconventional hydrocarbons research stem from our commitment to base our research on rock fundamentals, rather than starting with derivative information, and to build integrated research teams to take on these challenging systems. Outcrop and core studies are central to our program, which extends to subsurface characterization using well logs, seismic data, and stratigraphic models. We emphasize an integrated approach because single-discipline studies do not provide the breakthrough insights we seek. Current funding is approximately $5 million annually from industry, DOE, RPSEA, and state sources. Key laboratory capabilities at BEG feature FEI Nova NanoSEM 430 with dual EDS and Chroma CL, Gatan and Leica ion-beam mills, Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM), full geo-mechanics lab, and multi-instrument organic geochemistry lab. BEG maintains the nation's largest core repository system (three facilities, 1500 miles of core) and as such has access to samples from almost every state and many countries.

Shell SUTUR Program for Unconventional Oil and Gas Research
In September 2011, Shell and The University of Texas at Austin signed a 5-year agreement to invest $7.5 million to address short- and long-term challenges facing the growing worldwide unconventional oil and gas industry. The Bureau will manage the new Shell-UT Program on Unconventional Resources (SUTUR)with participation across the campus, including geoscience, engineering, economics, business, environmental, and regulatory affairs. "This agreement marks an important milestone in Shell's commitment to continually research and develop innovative technology that will help to meet global demands by bringing more energy resources to market," said Shell President Marvin Odum. "We chose to collaborate with UT because it brings together an extraordinary amount of talent from both organizations that will push the technological envelope in the field of developing even the most challenging hydrocarbons safely and responsibly." Bureau Director Scott Tinker thinks that the program will have a far-reaching impact. "Increased production of shale gas and other unconventional hydrocarbons could significantly enhance U.S. energy security," Tinker said, "since these are largely available, affordable, and reliable domestic energy sources that contribute directly to the U.S. and global economy." For more information, read the press release and stories in the Austin American-Statesman and Houston Chronicle. For information please contact Scott Tinker, Michael Young or Eric Potter.
   

Mudrocks
Twenty companies support our Mudrock Systems Research Lab consortium, led by Steve Ruppel. Emphasis is on rock-based characterization of shales, from pore to basin scale. Research on fractures in mudrocks and hydraulic fracturing in mudrock systems is conducted within the FRAC program. Additional sponsored projects include parts of the 3-year ExxonMobil/JSG Unconventional Resources project, two RPSEA grants associated with the FRAC program for characterizing fractures in mudrocks, and the STARR program which enables BEG to partner with operators in Texas on a variety of play types, including regional and local gas shale and shale oil opportunities.

   

Shale Gas Resource Definition
The rapid pace of shale gas development in a variable price environment prompts many questions about future production rates. When will production rate benchmarks be reached? How long can production at selected rates be sustained? Answering these questions requires an integrated understanding of the relationships among price, geologic drivers, technology advancement, regulatory environment, competing opportunities for capital, and well-production performance over decadal timeframes. These relationships are beginning to be evident in the US shale gas plays, and a thorough understanding of drivers and outcomes can be achieved with some confidence. Our team, including experts from BEG, UT, and other institutions, is working to provide experience-based analyses of the US Big-5 plays to date, as a basis for long-term forecasts under varying realistic assumptions. Such forecasts will be helpful to those formulating policy, and for end-users such as power generators. For information please contact Scott Tinker, Ian Duncan or Eric Potter.

   

Fractures
Seventeen companies support BEG’s FRAC consortium, dedicated to characterizing and predicting natural fractures. The team has made breakthrough discoveries in how fractures develop in tight-gas sands, and the ultimate fate of those fractures as mechanical and chemical processes interact through time. FRAC also stuides fractures in mudrocks and tight carbonate rocks. This approach is dubbed Structural Diagenesis. Successful predictions of open fractures have been made in the Permian Basin Wolfcamp and East Texas Basin tight sands plays of Texas. Steve Laubach (BEG) and Jon Olson (PGE) lead this program. Important additional funding comes from DOE Basic Energy Sciences, RPSEA, and the proprietary ExxonMobil/JSG project.

   
Hydraulic Fracturing
Julia Gale , working with BEG's FRAC consortium, has investigated the ways that hydraulic fractures (frac jobs) interact with natural fractures in the Barnett Shale. The BEG-led Advanced Energy Consortium sponsors research projects that attempt to develop nanoparticle contrast agents or acoustic emitters that could inform operators about frac job placement in the formation. Ian Duncan and JP Nicot are investigating relationships among hydraulic fracturing, water usage, and the possibility of groundwater contamination from fracing operations. Nicot co-authored an extensive study of water usage in the Barnett Shale play.
   
Tight Sands
Tight gas sand research includes the FRAC program described above, plus the Deep Shelf Gas consortium (16 companies) led by Shirley Dutton, investigating reservoir quality in the ultradeep Tertiary and upper Cretaceous sandstone targets beneath the Gulf of Mexico shelf. Additional research by the Permian Basin Synthesis group (led by Steve Ruppel) and the STARR team has recently added insight to Cleveland Sandstone targets in the Panhandle, and the Spraberry turbidite tight sand play in the Midland Basin.
   
Tight Carbonates
The dramatic increase in drilling and production in the Wolfberry play in the Midland Basin has focused attention on the potential for tight carbonates, interbedded with or adjacent to source-quality shales. The Permian Basin Synthesis project, STARR, and the Reservoir Characterization Research Lab (RCRL) have all been contributing rock-based understanding of this evolving play, and have been extending to other Permian tight-carbonate plays including the Bone Springs in the Delaware Basin
   
Geofluids
The UT Geofluids consortium, led by Peter Flemings, conducts studies of how fluid pressure evolves with increasing burial. Spin-off benefits include insights and laboratory approaches to fluid flow within mudrocks as they evolve during the first few hundred meters of burial.
   
Methane Hydrates
The Exploration Geophysics Lab (EGL), a consortium led by Bob Hardage, investigates applications of multicomponent seismic, taking advantage of the full vector wavefield rather than the standard compressional-wave-only approach. An obvious application is in characterizing rock physics of the near-seafloor habitat of deepwater methane hydrates. In the Green Canyon area of the Gulf of Mexico, EGL has successfully demonstrated the utility of multicomponent seismic from available ocean-bottom cable data, and careful petrophysics in available wellbores. The combination of these two approaches has provided a much clearer understanding of methane hydrate distribution in the challenging environment of unconsolidated sediment near the seafloor. Further applications offshore Central America and Colombia are in the planning stages.
   
Energy Economics
In BEG’s Center for Energy Economics (CEE), led by Michelle Foss, research focus is on frameworks for commercially viable energy projects and the business-government interface. CEE also provides insights about the economic impacts of various policy alternatives and industry trends, e.g. carbon taxes, fuel switching in power generation, and buildout of LNG import/export facilities.
   
Seismic Research
The rock-based research at BEG is supplemented and expanded significantly by seismic technology research, in two main areas. One is multicomponent seismic, described briefly in the Methane Hydrates section. Applications include detecting fracture presence and azimuth in subsurface targets. That is one of the goals of a current EGL project in Pennsylvania funded by a RPSEA grant. This white paper describes EGL's approach to seismic research in unconventional resource systems. The other major BEG area of seismic expertise is the Texas Consortium for Computational Seismology, led by Sergey Fomel. One aspect of this program is recognition and mapping of deep subsurface fractures, using a diffraction imaging approach. A similar project, co-led by Sergey, is funded by RPSEA.
   
For more information, please contact Eric C. Potter, Program Director for Energy. Telephone 512-471-7090 or e-mail eric.potter@beg.utexas.edu.  

 

 
 
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Gas Hydrates
Geophysics
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©2008 Bureau of Economic Geology, The University of Texas at Austin