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New study says gas can be engineered


The prevailing belief with oil and gas is that they’re finite, or non-renewable, resources – in other words, what’s there is there.

But what if that’s not true? What if, wonders one Houston geochemist, the gas that comes up isn’t just sitting underground waiting for extraction, but instead is “engineered.”

Catalytic gas is the idea that by using pressure one can control how much gas is produced, rather than just drilling and hoping for a good show, said Frank Mango, CEO of Petroleum Habitats, a geochemical research and development firm based in Houston that he co-founded the company with Dan Jarvie, a fellow geochemist and now president of Humble, Texas-based Worldwide Geochemistry LLC and an adjunct professor at Texas Christian University.

“The concept of catalytic gas has been around but it’s never been given serious consideration because certainly nobody thought five years ago that producing gas out of a source rock would generate anything other than what’s already there. We didn’t,” Mango said.

Mango’s study, Alpha Gas in Shale Plays, released in late April, recently was published in the scientific journal Proceedings of The Royal Society A: Mathematical and Physical Sciences.

“Think of this sort of as an enzyme,” said Eleanor Herriman, an engineer at Petroleum Habitats who has co-written papers with Mango and Jarvie. “This overturns a lot of thinking of where gas comes from and it has a lot of implications for how shale gases are drilled and produced.”

What’s happening?

Conventional wisdom says oil and gas drilling is all about examining geology, locating the best spots to drill and getting it to work – there are good wells and bad wells and the former is the goal.

“What people currently think is there’s a set amount of gas down there, and what we’re doing is drilling down and tapping into it,” Herriman said. “No, no – it’s an active chemical process down there and we can engineer to get more gas than is currently getting produced.

“Once we understand that we can control what we produce,” she added, “we can take wells that didn’t seem to perform very well (and) reconstruct them to become high-performing wells.”

Mango admits people are skeptical; after all, he was, too, until he looked at the data.

“We looked at the Barnett, Marcellus and others in the lab and we knew they generated catalytic gas at room temperature. It was a natural activity,” he said. “What was a total surprise was that the process we were looking at in the lab was occurring during the production of unconventional gas. It’s new. We think pressure is playing a very critical role.”

His evidence: “Drilling two equivalent wells, the one that is choked back over time will produce more gas.”

For example, a company operating in the Manco Shale of Utah brought a well on for three hours and analyzed the data: a typical well producing in-place gas with 99.9 percent methane.

“They shut it in for maybe three hours and opened it and produced it again and got a higher rate of production but the composition was now 90 percent methane 10 percent ethane,” Mango said. “The hydrocarbons were at thermodynamic equilibrium, which only happens under catalytic gas, so when they shut that gas in the pressure and activity went up.

“A similar phenomenon happened in the Barnett Shale” from a well drilled in Johnson County, he added.

What’s next?

Now comes the hard part: changing people’s perceptions.

“The first thing we’re going to try to do is bring this to the attention that currently are experimenting in choke-back,” Mango said, referring to companies that are bringing on wells, halting production to build pressure, then opening the wells back up. They might not know why they’re getting better results, and Mango wants to explain what’s happening.

Mango and company have been presenting their findings at industry events and will host a workshop next month with “a few companies attending.” They’re talking to one major oil company, too.

“There’s a lot of skepticism out there and I make no mistake about that,” he said. “There are other majors who consider this extremely unlikely. On the other hand I have heard… that at least one major is engaged in doing research on this question. So there is interest.

But, he concedes, “[t]he big companies move slowly. It’s the small independents that tend to accept the new technologies or at least try – they take the risks.”

Fort Worth Business Press

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