Features - May 2016

A Commitment to Knowledge: NETL Compiles a Dataset on Hydraulic Fracturing


One of the key elements of the National Energy Technology Laboratory’s (NETL) mission is to support the Department of Energy’s objectives—to ensure the prosperity and security of our Nation by creating an energy future that is both affordable and sustainable. Gathering data on different energy technologies and techniques is a vital step in developing a portfolio of energy resources that will continue to advance America’s energy options.

In continuing its support of this important mission element, NETL recently teamed up with several industry partners, including the Gas Technology Institute and Laredo Petroleum, to  gather data on hydraulic fracturing to develop a research dataset that is possibly the world’s most comprehensive collection of data on hydraulic fracturing in unconventional shale.

Hydraulic fracturing is a complex method of improving natural gas extraction. Natural gas is a fossil fuel found deep underground, locked in rock formations like coalbeds or shale. For many years, those gas resources were considered to be too difficult or too expensive to tap into, but advances in technology have made accessing this shale gas possible. Wells are drilled down thousands of feet, beneath natural aquifers, before curving to form horizontal boreholes that penetrate the shale formations. Fluid—a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals—is then injected deep into the wells under high pressure to create fissures in the rock and release the natural gas.

The United States has vast reserves of shale gas, and hydraulic fracturing has made tapping into those resources possible. Over the past two decades, technological advances have caused a natural gas boom that has increased U.S. production over eightfold. Nearly thirty percent of the electricity generated in the U.S. comes from natural gas, and fifty-four percent of that gas comes from hydraulic fracturing.

However, there are many variables in this process—where fractures occur, what their dimensions are, and how they improve the production of hydrocarbons. Because of the depth of the fractures, they cannot be seen, and therefore well operators must rely on indirect measurements to approximate their dimensions. However, the dataset created by NETL and its partners harbors great potential for advancing scientific understanding of the process.

Utica-Shale.jpg Utica Shale from Flat Creek near Canajoharie, NY. Photo by Dan Soeder. All rights reserved

The dataset was based on information accumulated during the field testing phase of a one-of-a-kind hydraulic fracturing research experiment in the West Texas Permian Basin. Eleven new 10,000-foot-long horizontal wells were drilled and stimulated in the upper and middle Wolfcamp formations, which allowed researchers to collect and get an unprecedented look at roughly 600 feet of unique, high-quality core samples.

The knowledge derived from the research team’s analysis of the core samples, and the dataset that resulted from this work, will be invaluable in improving our understanding of hydraulic fracturing and in developing fracturing models.  This work will eventually yield real-world benefits in the improved design and implementation of hydraulic fracturing wells—potentially reducing the number of wells drilled and decreasing the amount of water and energy needed for the process—ultimately resulting in a reduced environmental footprint.

This research truly reflects NETL’s commitment to advancing energy science in fundamental ways, creating a knowledge base that will benefit America’s energy future.