Jeff Daniels is a professor in the School of Earth Sciences and director of the Subsurface Energy Center.
How is “fracking” a game changer?
Since the turn of the 21st century, natural gas exploration and development have been revolutionized thanks to a pair of technological advances: Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. Pioneered at least 60 years ago, hydraulic fracturing involves the injection of a water-based fluid into hydrocarbon-bearing rock at very high pressure, which creates cracks through which natural gas and oil in that rock are recovered.
Compared to traditional fossil fuel extraction, the combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling has vastly increased hydrocarbon availability — by unlocking enormous volumes of oil and gas contained in shale and other geological formations formerly categorized as “uneconomic.” Shale gas accounted for less than 5 percent of domestic supplies as recently as a decade ago. But because of fracking, US production of the dry gas (or methane) we use to heat our homes and businesses, generate electricity and increasingly to run fleet vehicles is increasing; shale gas’ share of total output currently exceeds 25 percent and continues to rise.
How sustainable is the shale energy boom in Ohio?
Discussions of shale energy development often focus on the immediate economic impact of the oil and gas boom and bust cycles. Historically, an economic upturn in a new oil play is often followed by an economic downturn as the oil resource is depleted. Economists point to this boom-bust cycle for Ohio’s current upturn in activity, and questions on the viability of the Utica play arise at every slight decrease in activity.
In fact, decreases in the activity of an individual company are explained by multiple factors. For example, a company may choose to sell assets in one region in order to concentrate its resources and improve its odds of drilling a very productive well somewhere else. Alternatively, wells in a particular setting may not have access to pipelines that can carry the product to market or be close to a processing facility.
Ohio is seeing examples of phenomena such as these in the Utica play. Drilling in this shale formation is still in its infancy, and companies are defining the counties with the highest production potential. Call it either luck or expertise, some companies chose initial drilling locations early in the development of the Utica play that proved productive, though others did not. At the same time, technology leading to increased production is improving every day (companies currently recover only about 15 to 20 percent of the oil present in the rock), and this improved efficiency will increase production in existing wells and enable future production in regions of the Utica play that is uneconomic today.