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Shale! Shale! The Gang's All Here!

Big Bucks and Challenges at Haynesville and along the Tuscaloosa Trend

EE Astro Photograph

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It may seem surprising that one of Louisiana’s oldest industries is also one of its most technologically advanced, but oil and gas exploration has experienced a remarkable evolution during the last few centuries. Wave after wave of innovation has transformed the industry since 1821, when the first natural gas well was drilled in Fredonia, N.Y., preceding by decades the country’s first oil well. Since then, it seems that boring holes five miles deep into the earth using equipment that sits on rigs floating two miles above the ocean floor has almost become child’s play.

Throughout this relentless pursuit of petroleum and its byproducts, the question inevitably arises: When will we run out?

Given the world’s insatiable appetite and the quantity of oil and gas already pumped out of the earth, it’s impossible not to wonder when the end will come. Yet so far the industry has staved off the worry by applying creative technologies that provide access to new reservoirs. One of the latest results of these advancements has been the opening of huge underground resources that further solidify the drilling industry’s ties with Louisiana.

Geologists have long-known that thick layers of shale rock lie deep beneath much of the state’s surface. The fact that the shale contains substantial amounts of natural gas was also well-known. What kept the industry from looking more closely at the potential was the difficulty of getting the gas out.

Shale rocks are “tight,” with very low permeability and porosity, says John Curtis, professor of geochemistry at the Colorado School of Mining. The rocks’ sheer hardness makes the prospect of drilling them fraught with risk, he says. Even using today’s advanced technology, costly efforts can go awry if the shale does not contain just-right levels of hydrogen, pore pressure and brittleness.

“You have to drill a lot of wells to get the production you need,” Curtis told an audience during a videotaped seminar at Stanford University.  

But true to form, the petroleum industry is gradually meeting the challenge of shale. During the past several years, drillers, particularly in Louisiana, have honed techniques that opened these ultra-hard rock layers for exploration. But the process is not without controversy.

Rock-hard challenge

Massive layers of shale containing potentially large quantities of natural gas or petroleum underlie several regions of the United States. Some of the most notable deposits are in the Appalachian Basin, the Illinois Basin, portions of Michigan, eastern Texas and New Mexico. In recent years, drillers have tapped into one of the richest fields in the country, the Haynesville Shale, located in northwestern Louisiana.

Named for the town of Haynesville in Claiborne Parish, the formation is a thick, black layer of sedimentary rock that lies nearly two miles below the earth’s surface. It stretches under some 9,000 square miles of land from Shreveport-Bossier City to Natchitoches to Sabine Parish, also reaching into southwestern Arkansas and eastern Texas.

The Haynesville Shale took shape more than 100 million years ago, during the Jurassic Age, and it is rich in organic material – plant or animal remains that collected in shallow sea basins and were buried fast enough to prevent them from oxidizing before they turned into hydrocarbons. Through most of the history of oil and gas exploration, this rich organic matter was seen as off-limits because of the difficulty of accessing it.

What changed the picture was the co-evolution of two production technologies – directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing. While neither process is new, the drilling industry several years ago arrived at improved ways of combining the two to tap into very deep, hard rock.

Often called horizontal drilling, the directional means of boring into the earth enables companies to find and extract hydrocarbons while drilling fewer holes than traditionally used. Drillers can bore straight down to the level where the gas or oil resides, and then redirect the bit at an angle to bore horizontally toward multiple extraction points within the rock layer. The process has been used for some time in the Gulf of Mexico, where it enables the production of large quantities of oil or gas from a single drilling platform.

Along with horizontal drilling, producers deploy a fracturing – or “fracking” – process to mine deep shale. Fracking involves pumping millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals into a well under enormous pressure. The sand-and-liquid mixture breaks or fractures the rock and stimulates the flow of the commodity to the surface.

The successful combination of the two techniques in the Haynesville Shale about five years ago set off a firestorm of activity in the region. Production companies converged on the area in an effort to line up mineral rights on every acre of land within 100 miles of a potential drilling site. Millionaires were made overnight as individual landowners signed agreements that entitled them to future royalties on the commodities. Even small landowners were excited to learn they, too, would share in the action.

Shreveport resident Pamela Holt and her husband were among them. The couple had just relocated to the area from Kentucky in 2007 when an agent for one of the oil companies came knocking at the door. “When they came around talking to us about natural gas, we were like, ‘What?’” Holt recalls.

The couple signed a lease agreement that paid them an initial $300 per acre for mineral rights to their property, though no actual drilling will occur on their land. “We kind of thought nothing more would come of it,” Holt says, but almost two years later, royalty checks began rolling in. “We didn’t buy the land because of the gas, so to us, this is a bonus,” she says.

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