Features - September 2016

NETL and the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America: Ten Years of Success


The United States has a long history of facing energy problems head on and implementing strategies to help surmount them. While modern challenges may seem daunting—the global demand for energy rises daily—the Department of Energy (DOE) is well-equipped to develop innovative solutions and enable the research that will produce them.

Eleven years ago, the United States Congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPAct). This legislation was designed to alter U.S. energy policy to mobilize the research and resources needed to meet the evolving energy needs of the country. The scope of the bill was extensive, and, just over a decade later, the efforts of lawmakers and scientists combined have already borne fruit.

As a result of the bill, the Ultra-Deepwater and Unconventional Natural Gas and Other Petroleum Resources Research Program was developed. The program was geared to facilitate the development of the new technologies needed to tap domestic, hydrocarbon resources and provide a secure, sustainable American energy future.

The DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) immediately became entwined with this program, in charge of overseeing and managing the program. After issuing a solicitation in 2005, NETL selected the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America (RPSEA) to administer and implement the program. The RPSEA consortium is expansive, with a broad membership base of over a hundred organizations that that include representatives from all sectors of the oil and gas energy communities. This diversity of membership enables the consortium to pursue a wide range of projects, many of which have produced contributions—from new technologies to innovative predictive models—to harness U.S. hydrocarbon resources.

The Ultra-Deepwater and Unconventional Natural Gas and Other Petroleum Resources Research Program is broken down into three program areas: ultra-deepwater, unconventional onshore, and small producer.


The mission of the ultra-deepwater program is to identify and develop the technology, architectures, and methods that enable the responsible exploration and production of hydrocarbons from the ultra-deepwater areas of the outer continental shelf. The unconventional resources program was designed to increase the supply of domestic natural gas and other petroleum resources. Both of these programs focus on the safe and clean retrieval of hydrocarbons from extremely challenging environments—the high pressures and extreme temperatures of the ocean and the complex, highly variable geological systems of untapped, onshore reservoirs.

In contrast, the mission of the small producer program is to extend the lives of mature oil and gas fields in such a way that they are environmentally sustainable. Independent producers provide 65% of the U.S. natural gas market, and close to 45% of the oil production. Ensuring the strength of small companies is essential to a thriving energy sector, and the small producer program is designed to carry out research and development efforts that will assist these organizations.

Recently, NETL and the RPSEA held a conference marking the 10 year anniversary of the program—a gathering of the scientific community to celebrate and examine the successes produced in each of these three program areas. A number of the projects spotlighted were already commercialized while others were on their way to industry adoption. Some of the conference highlights were:


In 2011, 3D at Depth embarked on an RPSEA project to bring high-resolution, 3D laser imaging technology out of the laboratory and into the ocean. Light Detection and Ranging systems, or LiDAR, is a powerful tool that allows scientists to gather data and construct a detailed model of subsea environments. LiDAR illuminates a target with a laser and then analyses the reflected light creating a data set called a point cloud image—the final image is created by combing millions of points which result in a picture of the scanned environment.

While such scanners have been used on land with accuracy from several hundred meters away, an underwater environment hobbled the technology due to the adsorptive properties of water. The system developed by 3D at Depth is the first in the world to provide functional data collection from over 40 meters away. Further, the technology has already made the leap from laboratory to market and has been used on more than 20 projects worldwide, including assisting the U.S. National Park Service’s Submerged Resources Center with cultural heritage efforts by documenting the sunken USS Arizona. The development of this technology under the RPSEA has provided an important asset to the energy sector, making surveying ultra-deepwater environments safer and more accurate.

Deepwater drilling can be dangerous, not only due to knowledge gaps that constrict our understanding of deep-sea hydrocarbon reservoirs but also because of simple human error. The aim of this RPSEA project, headed by the Pacific Science & Engineering Group, was to create a database, assessment tool, and decision aid to help navigate the pitfalls associated with human errors in deepwater drilling. The resulting product, dubbed Trident, has proven to be of invaluable aid in resolving potential barriers caused by human factors. The project identified 147 human factors barriers in control decisions at deep-water wells. 60 real world incidents were analyzed for the factors and then the resulting analysis produced a list of 60 assessment items that formed the basis of an assessment tool. The Trident tool was pilot tested with an operator.  No severe issues were discovered, however several gaps in the thoroughness of the implementation of some human factors barriers were identified. The benefit of the assessment tool is that it provides a broad spectrum assessment of human factors in well control across key topics including kick detection, pit management, training, and decision making and across multiple job positions. As more assessments are conducted, it is envisioned that broad statistical norms for the industry can be established. Since human factors problems can be identified in most, if not all, incidents, assessing and improving those factors will improve human performance, safety, and efficiency, while minimizing risk.
Unconventional Onshore:

The Houston Advanced Research Center’s RPSEA project, The Environmentally Friendly-Drilling-Technology Integration Program (EFD-Tip), was a continuation of research begun in 2007 to integrate advanced energy technology into traditional systems with the objective of reducing the environmental footprint of petroleum drilling and production. EFD-TIP is an integrated approach to unconventional gas production that simultaneously pursues several objectives—the establishment of regional centers to test developing technology, to shepherd that technology through field-testing and demonstrate its reduced environmental impact, and, finally, to disseminate that information. This program has resulted in multiple successes: a low cost water test kit for common oil and gas water pollutants was created; several water treatment projects underwent field trials with promising results; researchers developed a methodology for estimating emissions from drilling rigs by using field data from the Eagle Ford Air Emission Inventory Group; and an organic Rankine cycle generator was tested to offer an alternative to flaring natural gas at oil wells.

GSI Environmental Inc. teamed up with Texas A&M University and HARC to run a RPSEA project geared to identify and evaluate the best approaches for the measurement and analytical characterization of waste streams associated with unconventional gas development. The project relied on data accumulated through several studies, from measuring air emissions of drilling operations to examining the variance in regulatory requirements. The data collected through the studies (Baseline Sampling & Stray Gas Investigation, Advanced Analytical Air Monitoring, and Produced Water Characterization) is under analysis by Technical Advisory Steering Committees, and is expected to aid in the formation of regulations that will mitigate the impacts of unconventional gas development while also stimulating the industry.
Small Producer: 

This RPSEA project was contracted to the Texas Engineering Experiment Station (TEES) in an effort to collect information on the performance of novel, low impact lease road construction options in desert-like environmental systems. Lease roads are a vital part of drilling and producing operations but have high environmental impact. Through this project, three different road materials were tested in Texas, bearing the brunt of traffic for several months to active operational sites. The goal of testing was to determine which materials would be the most environmentally friendly, either through being early removed or being constructed from recycled drilling waste.

The University of Texas of the Permian Basin headed up an RPSEA project to determine the presence and size of Residual Oil Zone (ROZ) resources in the Permian Basin that spans Texas and New Mexico. ROZs exist beneath many oil fields and contain significant amounts of oil that cannot be recovered through conventional production techniques, including water flooding. Flooding ROZ field areas with carbon dioxide, however, has had promising results. Encouraged by this, the RPSEA project sought to identify the ROZ fields that may be viable candidates for enhanced oil recovery, and the results collected was incorporated into a ROZ “cookbook” containing all of the data and methods developed under the project.

The success of the Ultra-Deepwater and Unconventional Natural Gas and Other Petroleum Resources Research Program is extensive—these projects are only a selection of the research and development efforts conducted under its umbrella. Through the efforts of NETL and the RPSEA, the objectives and goals laid out by EPAct are being pursued, bringing us every closer to a sustainable, secure energy future.