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Rock doc: New lessons for an aging geologist

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From page A4 | January 20, 2014 | 4 Comments

When I was young geology student, I learned the basics of petroleum production as they were then understood. Deep layers of sedimentary rocks, including shale, were the “source rocks” for hydrocarbons. The source rocks were too difficult to exploit directly — it just wasn’t economical to mess with them. But through natural processes, the petroleum and natural gas in the source rocks sometimes migrated to “reservoir rocks.” From Saudi Arabia to Texas, the name of the game was to sink wells into reservoir rocks and extract the hydrocarbons that had accumulated there over the ages.
But sustained high prices for petroleum and natural gas, as well as a revolution in drilling and extraction technology, have changed the game, making it possible to extract petroleum from what used to be dismissed as source rocks. And that’s making a world of difference in production. That point was brought home to me recently when I read that crude oil production in the U.S. is now greater than oil imports — the first time that’s been the case since 1995.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration, or EIA, recently published reports saying that oil imports stand at their lowest levels in absolute amounts compared to any time since 1991. That’s due, in part, to the technology of horizontal drilling at great depths underground, as well as hydraulic fracturing, nicknamed fracking.
Changes in the U.S. oil patch are garnering plenty of international attention. The International Energy Agency is the IEA — not to be confused with our EIA. The IEA’s head of oil markets is Antoine Halff.
“Just a few years ago, everybody thought U.S. production was in permanent decline, that the nation had to face the prospect of continuously rising imports — (but) now the country is moving towards self-sufficiency,” Halff said to BBC News.
Some analysts say the U.S. may produce as much petroleum as Saudi Arabia six years from now while others think it won’t take that long. No one can predict the future with certainty, of course, but such estimates show just how much is changing in oil fields.
Natural gas production is also being revolutionized by fracking. Peter Brett of Shell Oil in the U.S. told BBC News, “It’s huge. Just five years ago we were talking about importing liquefied natural gas and bringing that in from overseas, and now we’re looking at self-sufficiency for the next 100 years in natural gas.”
To be sure, the boom in oil and natural gas alarms some people. Environmental costs are one concern, with fracking said to trigger earth tremors and threaten groundwater supplies when chemicals from the operations invade aquifers. Beyond that, of course, more petroleum and natural gas being burned means more carbon dioxide in the air.
But so far it looks like fracking is being accepted in many parts of the U.S., and, unless laws change, the new technology looks poised to bring us more hydrocarbons in the coming decades.
Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. 

E. Kirsten Peters

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Discussion | 4 comments

  • Jed ClampettJanuary 14, 2014 - 10:38 pm

    Well this should be a wild ride.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • cookie65January 20, 2014 - 6:38 am

    Europe is turning away from the Cult of Magna Mater and opening the doors to prosperity. http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/european-commission-move-away-from-climate-protection-goals-a-943664.html

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • MartinJanuary 20, 2014 - 8:23 am

    Highway 58 coming towards Bakersfield the side of the mountain range looks as if someone had a nightmare and decided to share it with everyone. This isn’t something that is very appealing, windmills that look like grass growing all over the hillside. Renewable energy is probably a good thing but it sure is detrimental to our natural habitat, I can’t even imagine how many birds are being killed, along with all the rodents bugs and frogs that live on the ground around these mega windmills, they all have to have access by roads for repair, that destroys habitat. Green is good for the people that receive the green benefits ($) from it but it sure is damaging our environment. My daughter feels that I ***** too much about what the left is doing in regards to environmental issues, I am just trying to bring to their attention that all is not as it seems, everything has its consequences. If it wasn’t for debatable science and money mongers life would go on without any hitches; the problem is money! it is amazing how many want to jump on the bandwagon regardless who it hurts.

    Reply | Report abusive comment
  • EvelynFebruary 28, 2014 - 8:54 am

    The Strength of the Gas Lobby - Fracking and the Moral Arc of the Universe: HERE

    Reply | Report abusive comment
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