Every Grain of Sand: Shale gas and Hydraulic Fracturing

We all hear about shale gas being the next big thing in energy, but what is it?  The quick retort is that it’s gas in shale, but what does that mean? The gas is a natural gas so it is a series of hydrogen and carbon linked in gaseous forms.  This includes gases like methane and ethane, but what about the shale?

Shale Rock

Shale is a type of rock with a low permeability mix of mud, clay, and other minerals such as quartz.

If natural gas hits a shale layer as it migrates to the surface, it can become trapped in the shale.  A shale play is an area where shale gas is being produced or where companies are looking for shale gas.

The shale plays are located through out North America.  The Marcellus play covers 600 miles throughout the Appalachian Basin.  It ranges from New York, through West Virginia, and down to Tennessee and could contain 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (about the energy equivalent of 83 billion barrels of oil).  The Barnett shale formation is in north central Texas.  It spans from Montague to Hamilton and Jones to Dallas Counties, with one of the major concentrations located in Tarrant County. The Barnett may hold 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Shale gas is considered an unconventional resource which means that to extract the gas there needs to be more done than simply putting in a vertical well.  To get the best bang for the buck, you need to drill through the shale formation horizontally and then add force and pressure to break up the shale.

Shale gas is a great example of how new technology and a new way of looking at old things can bring about great change.

Shale gas wells have been in production since the 1820’s, but because it was too expensive to remove the gas from the shale, we let it lie.  Because of the properties of shale, production of shale gas wells remained extremely low up to the begging of the 21st Century.  By then technology and economics had caught up with the resource.

Natural gas is mainly used to create electricity and heat. In colder climes, the use of natural gas to create heat varies inversely with the outside temperature (as it gets colder more gas is used to make the inside of my house warmer). The natural gas used in power generation has consistently gone up every year.

US Natural Gas Total Consumption

Natural gas also burns much cleaner than coal.  From 2000 to 2009, gas from shale went from 1% of the total gas production in the United States to 14%.  That’s a huge jump in just a few years.

In 2005 the United States imported 15% of the natural gas it consumed.

It had been predicted that by 2030 we would increase imports to 20%, but because we knew where to find the shale gas, the necessary technology matured, and the economics came into line, by 2030 we should be importing only 1% of the natural gas we use.  In fact there is enough gas in all the different plays to last us 150 years at 2009 consumption rates.

With any new technology there are always concerns that it could negatively affect the environment.  The largest concerns come from the way the shale formation is broken up in the well.  Hydraulic fracturing, commonly called fracking (not be confused with other types of frack, is a process that uses a solution almost entirely of water which applies pressure to the rock and causes it to break.   If you have paid any attention to the news, you’ve probably heard of some controversy over fracking.  There are concerns that fracturing the shale formations is allowing the groundwater to become contaminated.  Some water wells and groundwater that are near shale gas wells have become contaminated with gas and other chemicals that are used in the shale gas well.

This, however, seems to come from improper well completion, spills on the surface, and evaporation of hydraulic fracture fluid that was open to the environment. None of this contamination comes from the fracking. Shale gas occurs well below ground water and aquifers.  An aquifer may run down as much as 600 ft or more, but the shale gas is another mile or more below that.  However the EPA is currently conducting tests on different wells, both gas and water, to see what is really going on. Their report is scheduled to be out at the end of the year.

Another concern is the amount of water it takes to frack a well. It can take up to 5 million gallons of water to finish one well.  If the well has poor access to local water, then the water will have to be trucked in from elsewhere.

Should we allow the fields of this resource to lay fallow?

Should we rush in and irresponsibly develop the resource?  The answer to both is “no”.  It is an energy source that we will need to maintain and improve our lives, but we should be mindful and develop it responsibly.  As we harvest the plays, we must make sure that we are not creating even more problems down the road.  Shale gas will play an important role in our energy, environmental and political future.

HMNS Expansion Update: Finishing Touches From 2011

The push to finish the construction of the Duncan Family Wing is getting underway, and for the most part the visible progress starts to happen on a smaller scale than it has thus far.

View of the west façade of the new wing, fully visible from San Jacinto now that the tower crane has been removed!
View of the west façade of the new wing, fully visible from San Jacinto -
now that the tower crane has been removed!

One big exception to that statement was last month’s removal of the tower crane from the west side of the building. The task required the use of another giant, but mobile, crane to lift each piece of the tower crane up and over the new building, into the delivery driveway for additional disassembly, and finally onto several flatbed trucks to be carted back to the crane’s winter home in Florida, Arizona, or South Padre.

Hundreds of feet of pipe circulate chilled and hot water throughout the new wing, including these pipes taking water to and from the rooftop air handling units.
Hundreds of feet of pipe circulate chilled and hot water throughout the new wing,
including these pipes taking water to and from the rooftop air handling units.

Throughout the rest of the building, final finish details are being completed.

Mirrors have been hung in the restrooms. The stairwells are getting coats of warm gray paint. Door handles and light switch covers and illuminated exit signs are being installed. Sensors for lights, sink faucets, and toilet flush valves are functioning, albeit at times a bit over-sensitively. (I involuntarily flushed a toilet from a distance of five feet earlier this week.) All are going in now so the contractor can fine tune the details so they really shine when the building opens to the public.

The third floor is almost ready for exciting new exhibits… and maybe some Saturday Night Fever?
The third floor is almost ready for exciting new exhibits…
and maybe some Saturday Night Fever?

Much of the detail work this month is happening in the three areas where the new wing will connect with the existing museum at the Wiess Energy Hall, the Herzstein Hall of Special Exhibits, and the McGovern Hall of the Americas. The finishes, meaning wall and ceiling materials and flooring even lighting, are a little bit different at each “tie-in” area because the spaces in both the new and old wing are a little bit different on each floor. The design team and contractor have worked to carefully coordinate the varying field conditions with distinct operational requirements to make each of the tie-in spaces both functional and beautiful.

The site on the west side of the project is being graded in anticipation of landscaping in the coming months.
The site on the west side of the project is being graded
in anticipation of landscaping in the coming months.

I can’t wait to share the finished product in the coming weeks.

Be sure to check out this month’s flickr set for more details on the project’s recent progress.

Birthplace: Pennsylvania? US Oil Turns 150 Today

Today’s guest blogger is Julian Lamborn. He is a volunteer at the museum and has been leading tours as a docent since March of 2004. He is an engineer, and loves to study and talk about energy. Today, Julian gives us a history lesson about the start of the oil industry in the United States – 150 years ago today.

On today’s date in 1859, oil was first extracted from the ground in this country by a drilling process. The place where this occurred was NOT in Texas but in the small Pennsylvania town of Titusville. The man who made it all happen was “Colonel” Edwin Drake, a New York-born inventor whose business career had begun as a conductor on a brand new, sometimes dangerous, conveyance known as the railroad.

In the late 1850s, a New Haven speculator hired Drake to investigate Titusville for oil deposits. He had seen a Yale chemistry professor’s report that the “rock oil” that seeped from the ground could be refined and employed for illumination, lubrication, and other uses. When Drake arrived in Titusville, the locals laughed at his futile methods, particularly his initial efforts to find oil by digging trenches at seepage sites.

Although the modern oil industry began in the mid 1800s, what we know as “crude” oil has been around since the dawn of history. Great pressures that exist under sedimentary rock systems containing oil continuously drive some of the oil to the surface through strata faults. This oil seeps out of the earth’s surface and has been used for a variety of purposes for thousands of years. One of the earliest uses for heavy oil seepages is spoken of in the book of Genesis (Genesis 11:3) where it mentions using bitumen (sometimes known as pitch or asphalt) for mortar in building the Tower of Babel.

Bamboo Detail
Creative Commons License photo credit: geishaboy500

There were many early attempts to hasten the flow of these oil seeps by drilling holes into the seepage zones. The earliest known oil wells were drilled in China around the middle of the 4th century. These wells had depths of up to 800 feet (240 m) and were drilled using bits attached to bamboo poles. The oil that came to the surface, known as “burning water” in China and Japan, was burned to evaporate brine to produce crystalline salt. By the 10th century, extensive bamboo pipelines connected oil wells with salt springs to facilitate the business.

The Middle East’s petroleum industry was well established by the 8th century, when the streets of Baghdad were paved with tar derived from petroleum from natural seepage in the region. Petroleum was distilled in Persian (Iran) in the 9th century, producing flammable products for military purposes. After Spain was conquered by Moors in the 8th century, the Islamic world’s oil distillation technologies became known and available in Western Europe.

Some sources claim that, beginning in the 9th century, oil fields were exploited in the area around modern Baku, Azerbaijan, to produce naphtha for heating. When Marco Polo visited Baku, which is on the shores of the Caspian Sea, in 1264, he saw oil being collected from seeps. He wrote that “there is a fountain from which oil springs in great abundance, inasmuch as a hundred shiploads might be taken from it a one time.”

At Baku seeps, shallow pits were dug to facilitate the collection of the oil. By 1594, hand-dud holes up to 115 feet (35 meters) deep were in use. Essentially oil wells, 116 of the holes produced about 28,000 barrels of oil, about 80 barrels/day (a barrel of contains 42 U.S. or 35 Imperial gallons) by 1830.  In 1849, Russian engineer F.N. Semyenov used a cable tool to drill an oil well on the Apsheron Peninsula near Baku, ten years before Drakes famous well in Pennsylvania.

There is much discussion as to exactly when and how the oil industry itself started; however, Polish pharmacist, Ignacy Lukasiewicz (1822-1882), is generally credited with developing the first industrial-scale process for refining seepage oil in 1853, distilling it to create kerosene. He intended his process to supplement the rapidly diminishing (and therefore, increasingly expensive) supply of whale oil, which was burned for illumination.

Lantern shadow
Creative Commons License photo credit: Valerie Everett

Besides kerosene, early refineries produced asphalt, machine oil and lubricants while products not needed (such as gasoline) were burned in open pits. At this time, there was a growing demand for better lighting in homes, factories, and streets; kerosene was seen as the answer to this need. Additionally, a thriving industry developed where early oil finds and distillates were put to some rather unusual uses for both internal and external purposes in the medial field. By the mid 19th century in the U.S., crude oil was bottled and sold unabashedly, promising a cure for just about everything from rheumatism, gout, and blindness to the common cold!

In 1854, Benjamin Silliman, Sr., father of the science professor at Yale whose report on oil seepage launched Drake’s investigation, was the first to fractionate petroleum by distillation. This discovery, together with that of Ignacy Lukasiewicz’s, ignited the petroleum industry. By the early1860s, when Baku was producing about 90% of the world’s oil, refineries began springing up in many other parts of the globe, particularly in the U.S. where crude oil from drilled wells had been available since August 27, 1859, when Edwin Drake finally found oil at 69 feet into the ground on Oil Creek near Titusville (see picture below).

Drake’s well was drilled for Seneca Oil Company, and it originally yielded 25 barrels/day. By the end of 1859, output was down to only 15 barrels/day, but by then, many other wells had been established in the area. To utilize this oil, the U.S. refining industry grew rapidly with the first refinery in the area being commissioned in 1862, driven initially by the demand for kerosene lighting.

By 1865, in Cleveland, Ohio, where a great deal of the crude from Titusvillewas taken, 30 simple-batch still refineries operated witha total capacity of 1,500/barrels/day. This capacity far eclipsed the size of the Baku oil industry. Standard oil built the largest refinery in Cleveland in 1870 witha capacity of 1,500/barrels/day. At the end of late 19th century, both crude oil and refined products were major exports of the U.S.  In the early part of the 20th century, with the introduction of the internal combustion engine, the demand for refined products, which still sustains the industry, was created. Early oil finds like those in Pennsylvania and Ohio were quickly outpaced by demand, and this led to oil booms and refinery construction in Texas, Oklahoma, and California as well as in other parts of the world such as Russia and Saudi Arabia.

From the early, heady, Edwin Drake days, the oil industry has grown to the point where, worldwide, up to 84 million barrels/oil are produced and refined every day in some 717 refineries. Of these, 132 are in the U.S., where 17.6 million barrels/day of crude oil are refined.  In 150 years, the U.S. has swung from being the world’s largest exporter of crude oil to being the world’s largest importer of crude oil. The world’s largest refining complex exists not in the U.S. but in Venezuela, where more than 956,000 barrels/day of crude oil are refined by PDVSA on one site—a far cry from Standard’s 1,500 barrels/day Cleveland refinery in 1870!

Drilling rig
Creative Commons License photo credit: eMaringolo

The Greek roots of the word “petroleum” are simple: petra, meaning “rock” and olemum, meaning “oil,” but there the simplicity ends. Edwin Drake, on August 27, 1859, had no idea that he was in on the birth of the world’s new energy era. He never patented his drilling techniques and died a poor man in 1880, having lost his money on Wall Street. For the last seven years of his life, he lived on a $1500/year annuity granted to him by the State of Pennsylvania for services rendered to the oil industry. Yet, as a successful entrepreneurial wildcatter, he paved the way for many others to make the oil industry what it is today—a complex potpourri of applied science, ingenuity, engineering design, unit operations, and marketing systems that have become a political forced throughout the entire world.

VIDEO: Explore The Wiess Energy Hall

Energy is a topic that relates to every one of us – and with the recent spike in the price of oil, it’s something we’re all following closely. I can’t think of a better place to learn quickly and easily about the oil and gas industry than the Weiss Energy Hall, here at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

The Oil & Gas Investor agreed – and now, you can see us featured on their Web site. In her article, Meredith Cantrell does a great job of getting the point across that the Wiess Energy Hall is a great resource for all ages and for people from all walks of life.  I was excited when I heard that such a financial icon was coming to check us out.  If I were an investor, I would want to know all I could about the industries that I was investing in.  

While they were here, Meredith interviewed me and compiled a short video. The film also shows the large variety of displays in the hall.

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Explore Energy! Meredith Cantrell speaks with Claire Scoggin, Director of the Wiess Energy Hall at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, for a piece in the Oil & Gas Investor online. They have kindly agreed to let us share it here. Videography by Lindsay Goodier.

The day this was filmed, we also met Lindsay Goodier, the Online Editor for Oil and Gas Investor, who has a blog called Oil Rules which I thoroughly enjoy reading. She is always on top of what is developing in the oil and gas industry and has fun talking about it. Check it out!