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Innovation in oil & gas — it ain’t over yet

To read the newspapers these days, you’d think that all the innovation in energy is involved in bringing down the cost of solar panels or building even bigger blades for windmills. But innovation still continues apace in oil and gas, both in pulling them out of the ground and in finding new ways to use them.

“We haven’t been giving the big oil companies enough credit,” said Dominic Basulto in The Washington Post. “ Sure, we may see their print ads or watch as they tout their accomplishments on TV, but deep down, many of us believe that the brightest minds have moved on to something new in energy innovation. But that’s not true.”

That’s important because if we’re going to use our abundant natural gas supplies to wean ourselves off of foreign oil, we’re going to have to be sure the current superabundance of natural gas isn’t just a flash in the pan. Moreover, we’re going to need innovation in making the transition to methane-based liquid alcohol fuels easier as well.

As most people have heard by now, even our best technologies can’t extract more than about 10-20% out of an oil or gas reservoir from the earth. Simply doubling that rate would give us access to huge, new quantities of domestic fuels.

There’s also a concern that fracking wells will have a much shorter lifespan than traditional gas and oil wells. Then there’s all that natural gas being flared off in the Bakken. Ending that conspicuous form of waste will require some new technology.

All these problems are being tackled through innovation, however, and that’s what Basulto is talking about.

Although everybody knows about fracking — the technology of forcing sand and water into the rock to break it up — few realize that the real novelty that makes up the current upturn in production possible is horizontal drilling, which allows access to entire geological strata without making the territory look like a pincushion.

“Today, drilling rigs are so good that they can punch holes in the earth that are two miles deep, turn the drill bit 90 degrees, drill another two miles horizontally, and arrive within a few inches of the target,” said Robert Bryce, author of “Smaller, Faster, Lighter, Denser, Cheaper,” a book about innovation in the energy industry. But horizontal drilling hasn’t stood still. ExxonMobil has developed an “extended reach” technology that can push outward several miles further deep in the earth. “Extended reach reduces our environmental footprint and in offshore applications will limit our presence in the marine environment,” says the company’s website. It may have been developments like this that prompted President Obama to give a green light to exploration off the Atlantic Coast from Delaware to Florida last month.

The same innovations are occurring with natural gas fracking. Innovators have made an improvement called “sleeve technology” that surrounds the drill bit and allows highly accurate placement of stimulation treatments. The result is that wells can be drilled twice as fast as a few years ago, at a lower cost. With increased precision in both drilling and fracturing, wells are being made more productive as well. Erika Johnsen on Hot Air said, “Data from the Energy Information Administration’s Drilling and Production Report shows that a Marcellus Shale well completed by a rig in April 2014 can be expected to yield over 6 million cubic feet of natural gas per day (Mcf/d) more than a well completed by that rig in that formation in 2007.” That’s a huge improvement in the space of seven short years.

All this is good news for the effort of substituting natural gas-based ethanol or methanol for foreign oil in our cars. After all, one of the fundamental considerations is that there will be enough natural gas around to keep the price reasonable. With so many competing proposals for employing natural gas — electrical generation, the industrial revival, LNG exports, etc. — it’s crucial that we keep expanding production.

So it’s encouraging to hear the news from Clean Energy Fuels, T. Boone Pickens’ baby, which has been building a “CNG Highway” across the country to service long-haul tractor-trailers. CEF has just completed the first leg of this nationwide network, connecting Los Angeles and Houston.

But much of the nation still lies outside the reach of natural gas pipelines and CEF is figuring out a way to serve them, as well. Last month the company opened a filling station in Pembroke, New Hampshire that will be served by a “virtual pipeline” of high-tech tractor-trailers making round-the-clock deliveries. This will allow the station to pump 10 million gasoline-gallon-equivalents (GGE), twice the volume of CEF’s largest existing station. More important, it will open up large areas of the country that have not had access to CNG. This natural gas-based substitute will sell for 30% less than gasoline.

Technology never stands still. Sometimes it forces us to give up things that have become familiar or even seemingly permanent. But as Robert Bryce said, the new technology is usually “faster, smaller, lighter, denser and cheaper.” And in the case of methane-based liquid fuels, it will mean freeing ourselves from foreign oil as well.

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