Back to Top
Skip to main content
NETL’s 2019 Successes Promote Safe & Responsible Subsurface Energy Production

Developing technology solutions that enhance the nation’s energy foundation and protect the environment for future generations requires a comprehensive understanding of the complex behavior of natural and engineered systems, both at surface level and deep underground. NETL made significant strides in 2019 by advancing innovative earth-energy data computing tools and characterizing shale-based oil and gas operations.

Enhancing Understanding of Shale Operations
The Marcellus shale — a large oil and natural gas formation that encompasses 104,000 square miles across Pennsylvania, West Virginia, eastern Ohio and western New York — produces plentiful and affordable natural gas to help meet America’s growing energy needs. As the nation’s largest source of natural gas, it offers the potential to be a major long-term producer of gas and gas liquids. That’s why NETL is working to better understand the Marcellus shale and develop best practices that ensure U.S.  natural gas resources are produced in a cost-effective and environmentally responsible manner.

The Marcellus Shale Energy and Environmental Laboratory (MSEEL) — a research partnership funded by NETL that involves West Virginia University, Northeast Natural Energy and Ohio State University — provides unique insights to improve natural gas production efficiency and minimize environmental impacts at wells throughout the Marcellus shale region.

For instance, NETL experts deployed a Mobile Air Monitoring Laboratory at the MSEEL site, using a suite of sophisticated data-gathering instruments to measure emissions and dispersion rates for various compounds. Their findings could help avoid future adverse impacts on local and regional air quality where unconventional oil and gas activities are underway. Among the lessons learned in 2019:

  • The greatest impact from methane and volatile organic compounds occurred during flowback from hydraulic fracturing. Further analysis attributed peak concentrations observed during flowback to activity on the well pad rather than off-site sources.
  • Emissions attributed to combustion engines were highest during drilling and production stages.
  • Access road traffic is a source of nitrogen oxides to areas near the well pads.
  • Well pad activities affect local ammonia concentration dynamics and are more likely to occur during phases where large diesel engines are used.

NETL also demonstrated that its versatile analytical technology — known as laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) — can provide a cost-effective, rapid and precise method for determining the elemental composition of organic-rich shales like the Marcellus. Knowing what elements are present in shale formations can help determine mineral composition as well as how porous the rock may be and how easily a fluid could travel through the formation — critical properties that affect how natural gas producers approach drilling operations. Additionally, the characterizations made by NETL’s LIBS systems can pinpoint areas of higher organic material concentration that may indicate high gas production potential.

Now, another team of NETL researchers is conducting a high-tech examination of a 139-foot core sample taken from MSEEL. The Lab is using its collection of sophisticated scanning equipment to perform rapid and non-destructive characterization of the core to better understand the structure and variation of the Marcellus formation.

Reducing Risk with Data Computing Tools
NETL’s geo-data science experts developed novel data computing solutions available for licensing that address comprehensive earth, energy, environmental and engineering needs. These innovative tools offer accurate science-based data, analysis and prediction for Earth-energy applications — including big data and machine learning capabilities — to industry, governments, researchers and other stakeholders requiring research-driven data for energy operations.

Many of the trademarked and copyrighted tools are part of the Offshore Risk Modeling (ORM) suite created by NETL’s Geo-Analysis & Monitoring Team to evaluate and reduce the risk of oil spill events. The ORM suite provides a comprehensive framework for future predictions, analyses and visualizations surrounding oil spill scenarios to better inform offshore drilling efforts. Analysis tools include:

  • The Blowout Spill Occurrence Model™ (BLOSOM), which predicts how and where oil will travel following offshore blowout and spill events.
  • The Climatological Isolation and Attraction Model (CIAM), which determines where oil and other ocean particles are likely to be attracted or repulsed.
  • Cumulative Spatial Impact Layers™ (CSIL), a spatial tool that rapidly identifies and quantifies potential socio-economic and environmental risks in different areas.
  • Spatially Weighted Impact Model™ (SWIM), which explores relationships among oil spill simulations, response availability and potential risk.
  • Subsurface Trend Analysis™ (STA), which improves prediction of subsurface properties that are critical for calculating hazards.
  • Variable Grid Method© (VGM), which communicates the uncertainty in data and modeled results.

NETL researchers also developed a Spatially Integrated Multivariate Probability Assessment™ (SIMPA) tool that evaluates trends and knowledge gaps. In addition, the Lab’s online collection of capabilities and resources, known as the Energy Data eXchange™ (EDX), supports collaborative energy-related research efforts and technology transfer of research products.
These tools, along with NETL’s efforts to study and characterize subsurface resources like the Marcellus shale, demonstrate the Lab’s internationally recognized abilities to monitor, analyze and predict the physical, chemical and biological structures and functions of complex environments from field-scale down to the molecular level. Ultimately, Geological & Environmental Systems research is successfully achieving NETL’s vital mission by making the extraction of critical fossil energy resources safer and simultaneously ensuring responsible stewardship of the environment.