Federal agencies played a leading role in the development of shale gas fracturing technologies, according to former head researcher Alex Crawley. Crawley, the former Program Manager at the federal Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA, a precursor to the Department of Energy), oversaw a significant portion of the federal research that went into the development of shale gas fracturing technologies. As a Breakthrough Institute investigation has uncovered, federal agencies like the Department of Energy and the National Energy Technology Laboratory led a sustained effort to adapt conventional hydraulic fracturing techniques to shales, where the geology is much more complex and difficult to tap.
Crawley discusses the contribution of diamond-studded drill bits, microseismic imaging, and other advanced gas extraction technologies that were the products of smart public-private research and commercialization efforts.
Click here for to download our history of the government's role in shale gas fracturing development.
The Breakthrough Institute: What was your role at the Department of Energy?
Alex Crawley: In '74 I moved to Washington for a development program within the Department of Interior. While I was there ERDA [the Energy Research and Development Administration, a precursor to the DOE] was formed. The Bureau of Mines was moved into ERDA and they offered me the job of program manager in the gas program.
From there I became the Associate Director of the DOE's National Petroleum Technology Office in Tulsa.
BTI: What sort of research did you oversee?
Alex Crawley: One of the parts of ERDA was the Eastern Gas Shales [Project]. The shale program was run out of Morgantown. I shepherded the Advanced Research program because it had very little support.
We formed a partnership with the nine multipurpose National Labs, with an industry partner proposal each year. We had 15-20 industry guys running fracturing research within their companies come together one or twice a year.
We pushed basic research into the demonstration part of the program -- rock mechanics, seismic detection, all that.
The portion of the gas program that produced the technology that made the production of unconventional gas an economic process came from the Advanced Technology Development (ATD) subprogram. Budget wise it was difficult to sustain each year. The field program managers wanted to do experimentation with existing technology. The ATD program was criticized and often referred to as "Crawley's folly." But with the help of forward thinkers in the industry and the National Laboratories we managed to keep it alive from 1975 to 2000.
BTI: What sorts of technologies did your team develop?
Alex Crawley: The first directional well cost about 10 times as much as the straight vertical well because the technology wasn't there -- you had to put your survey tools down the well, which cost a lot of time and money. ERDA funded TeleCo, a small startup, which was the first government work done on downhole monitoring. We used things like pulsing and frequencies up the drill pipe to know where the drill bit was at all times.
One of the biggest things for directional drilling was polycrystalline drill bits. GE had the diamonds, and it was a matter of ERDA getting GE together with the gas industry so GE could attach the diamonds to studs on the drill bits. Those drilled much faster than rotary bits.
The other was telemetry at the bit as it was drilling to know its location. 3D seismic was eventually used so that when they fractured they would know where the drill bit was the entire time.
BTI: What are the technical challenges to shale fracturing?
Alex Crawley: Knowing where the fractures go, what's going to control them, the fluids you can use to interact with shales in a specific area. Most of these shales have clays in them, so with just straight water they tend to junk up rather than remain competent rock. How to prevent spores from getting in and creating algae in the formation. What type of propant is best to use -- we used everything from water to liquid CO₂ to you name it trying to find the propants that would best keep the fractures open. It's basically an understanding of how rocks react. If you're gonna fracture vertical or horizontal, could you keep the fractures within the productive shale? All the basic research on rock mechanics added to the work that had been done. Gradually over the years we pieced it together.
BTI: So it was a matter of combining different technologies and techniques?
Alex Crawley: To make any of these technologies economical you had to maximize your yield. Until we had the technology where we could do the surveys and draw a map where the bit was in the shale, you couldn't get these wells economical. All that technology coming together -- massive hydraulic fracturing, diamond-studded drill bits, 3D seismic imaging, directional drilling -- it wasn't until the 1980s that it became economical enough to repeat it. [Before that] they were drilling through shale to get to sandstone reservoirs.
BTI: Do you think this research would have been done with the government's involvement?
Alex Crawley: As far as shale is concerned, I don't know that industry ever would have taken a look at it without the federal program because it didn't look like it had the porosity to be reachable. The technology for the drilling and completion of those wells, that would have possibly eventually come along because they were interested in maximizing production. The research departments in these companies were not looking at advancing the technology. They would look at specific things like drill rigs and blowout preventers and the things that were absolutely needed for the industry to solve a problem: applied research. But when we started there was absolutely nothing going on in research to understand rock mechanics.
The partnership we formed between the Labs and industry was an example of government and private companies working together.
I really feel that there is a role. Government's not going to step in and develop anything all the way through, but working with industry you have a different set of eyes. If you keep an open mind the government can become a real catalyst.