DOE Initiative Targets Ultra-Low Environmental Impact Recovery

The Department of Energy has selected three research projects designed to demonstrate a new operating paradigm for America's oil and natural gas producers: finding and producing oil and gas with ultra-low environmental impact.

The funding will be awarded under a DOE funding opportunity dubbed "Low-Impact Natural Gas and Oil." The LINGO initiative integrates current technologies and practices in ways that minimize adverse environmental impacts from recovery of oil and gas over the life of the projects. At the same time, the initiative seeks to boost the economic recovery of oil and gas by addressing the environmental concerns that block such recovery.

The projects will be managed by DOE's National Energy Technology Laboratory as cooperative agreements in which project performers share at least 20 percent of the cost for research and development projects, and at least 50 percent of the cost for demonstration and commercialization projects. DOE funds available under the LINGO initiative total $1.3 million.

The United States is the world's most mature hydrocarbon-producing region. Finding and producing oil is increasingly difficult and costly. As the existing U.S. reserve base dwindles in a climate of ever-rising energy prices, the Nation's oil and gas exploration and production (E&P) companies are moving into more environmentally-sensitive areas. The resulting conflict between Americans' energy security needs and their environmental concerns has led to standoffs over public lands rich in both resources. For example, the National Petroleum Council estimates that 125 trillion cubic feet of potential natural gas resources is either off-limits or constrained from development due to added costs and delays because of environmental concerns in the Rocky Mountain region.

What DOE seeks to achieve with LINGO is to demonstrate that ultra-low impact technologies and practices can be deployed in these onshore sensitive areas without environmental harm. In time, this can bolster the public's confidence that oil and gas development can proceed in these areas without adverse effects to ecosystems.

The three selected LINGO projects follow:

University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Ark.—One of the hottest natural gas exploration and production plays is low-permeability, or "tight," gas shales. Such unconventional gas resources are providing an ever-growing share of the Nation's gas supply. With thousands of wells drilled in recent years, the Barnett Shale play in central Texas has shown such potential that some experts feel it may become America's biggest natural gas field. Now the Fayetteville Shale play in central Arkansas is getting similar scrutiny for its huge potential, with more than 2 million acres under lease and thousands of wells expected to be drilled in the next several years. The University of Arkansas, assisted by Argonne National Laboratory, will develop a web-based software application that enables small, independent E&P companies to generate development plans for recovering resources in sensitive ecosystems located within the bounds of the Fayetteville Shale play. The goal is to help E&P companies meet their regulatory requirements while anticipating and minimizing environmental risks. The project will develop a geographic information system-based, risk-management tool that enables an operator to evaluate alternative lease layouts and thus manage site-specific environmental concerns in advance.

Michigan Technological University, Houghton, Mich.—Michigan Tech will develop and test a new strategy to satisfy a state environmental regulation that currently places large tracts of prospective Antrim Shale natural gas resource in the Michigan Basin off-limits to exploration and production. Adverse environmental impacts to both air and water are of primary concern. The possible impacts to the subsurface are aquifer contamination by drilling muds and fluids, while the impact to the atmosphere stems from CO2 that is co-produced with the gas. The project will apply a novel drilling and completion approach to this prolific gas shale play by utilizing horizontal drilling and open-hole completions. The project will also investigate economic alternatives to the current practice of venting the produced CO2 to the atmosphere. In addition, the proposed horizontal drilling effort will be much more efficient in producing the natural gas from the shale, thus reducing surface disturbance by requiring far fewer wells than would be needed to drain an equivalent amount of acreage using conventionally drilled vertical wells. Michigan Tech is leading a project consortium that includes Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Mich., and Jordan Development Company LLC, Traverse City, Mich.

Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC), Oklahoma City, Okla.—IOGCC will develop an Adverse-Impact Reduction Handbook that helps E&P companies identify onshore natural gas and oil E&P barriers, provides viable approaches to minimizing impacts, and includes a benefit analysis of each option. In a unique approach, the project will gather input from a broad-based stakeholder group that includes landowners, ranchers, farmers, and other concerned citizens, as well as Federal and State agencies and industry representatives. The handbook will serve as a "best practices" guide driven by case studies, field research, and broad stakeholder input with the goal of overcoming opposition or delays for E&P activity. It also would be supported by a website. IOGCC is partnering in the project with ALL Consulting, Tulsa, Okla., Devon Energy Corp., Oklahoma City, Okla., and the State oil and gas agencies of California, Nebraska, Montana, and North Dakota.