Continuing Breakthrough Institute’s series of in-depth interviews with pioneers of the shale revolution, Senior Innovation Analyst Loren King talked with Norm Warpinski, a Halliburton fellow for Pinnacle – a Halliburton service. Of his many contributions to hydraulic fracturing, Norm is perhaps best known as a principal developer of microseismic monitoring, which was crucial to understand the nature of underground fractures. At Pinnacle, Norm works on developing new tools and analyses for hydraulic fracture mapping, reservoir monitoring, hydraulic fracture design and analysis, and integrated solutions for reservoir development. He previously worked at Sandia National Laboratories from 1977 to 2005 on various projects in oil and gas, geothermal, carbon sequestration, and other geomechanics issues.
How did you become involved with shale gas research?
I graduated in 1977 as a mechanical engineer with a BS, MS, and PhD from the University of Illinois. I went to work for Sandia National Labs the same year. As soon as I walked into the door, they asked me if I wanted to work on hydraulic fracturing. I thought I was going to work in coal gasification, but Sandia had just secured a project to look at hydraulic fracturing and asked me if I wanted to join. I did, and I’ve been working on it ever since.
What was the first project you worked on and what was your role?
The first project I worked on was the Mineback experiment. This experiment allowed us to observe the fracture in gory detail. Originally, I knew nothing about it, but it was a great way to start working. I started out just being an analyst, but I quickly became the lead person for designing the experiments, deciding what kind of instrumentations we needed, etc. Over the course of the experiment, I wrote something like five reports and several journal articles detailing the nature and characteristics of the underground fractures.
What were the main takeaways from the Mineback Experiment?
When rocks are fairly simple, the fractures behave the way we expect them to. We did a fairly good job of predicting how they would propagate. Conversely, when the geology gets very complicated, you have lots of natural fractures and the hydraulic fracturing became very unpredictable and complicated. We saw this in the 1970s and it is exactly what we see now with shale in places like the Barnett. Our summary conclusion was: the more complicated the geology, the more complicated the hydraulic fracture.
Isn’t most shale rock considered complex?
Yes, but it depends on where you are. Certainly the Barnett shale, where it all began, was complex. And initially, many of those drilling there were surprised at how complex the fractures turned out. At Sandia, on the other hand, we weren’t sure the type of complexity we identified during the Mineback Experiment would exist elsewhere. When we identified it in the Barnett Shale, we were much less surprised than many others.
Were you involved with the Multi-Well Experiment, where microseismic mapping for hydraulic fractures was first developed?
Yes, that was the second experiment I worked on. A big part of that experiment was hydraulic fracturing, and I was the primary person at Sandia working on fracturing. It took place from about ‘81 until about ’86. The project was different because it involved low permeability sandstone.
And what did you learn from that experiment?
Before answering that question, let me back up a little bit. Los Alamos had received funding from the early ‘70s to look at microseismic monitoring for geothermal. Because the technology seemed promising, Sandia began to investigate whether it could work for oil and gas. We were in the process of developing microseismic and other tools at about the same time we were starting the Multi-Well Experiment (MWX).
As far as I know, the first-ever published microseismic monitoring for hydraulic fracturing was in 1983 at MWX, and we also did the second in 1985, and another in 1986. The MWX results led to a lot of advancements in many aspects of characterizing and developing tight sand reservoirs. For one thing, we did testing for six years, while most people are lucky to do it for a week. We had data that no one else had ever been able to obtain: fracturing data, in situ stress measurements, rock measurements, geologic studies, well testing, etc.
At the time, did you work with Mitchell or any other private company looking at hydraulic fracturing?
The Multi-Well Experiment had a private advisory group: Exxon; Mobil; AMOCO; ARCO; Sohio. All helped Sandia identify the types of problems private companies were facing and they would give us advice on what we were doing. We weren’t directly involved with Mitchell at the time but several of the people who went on to work there had interactions with Sandia and much of the DOE and GRI work. At the time, Mitchell was focusing on very large hydraulic fracturing.
Can you tell us more about your involvement with hydraulic fracking mapping in the late 1990s?
That started with a project primarily funded by the Gas Research Institute and the Department of Energy. It was in Colorado, in the same location as the Multi-Well Experiment. (Two of the MWX wells were still available for our use.) It was called the M-Site experiment and was meant to be a fracture diagnostics laboratory. A lot of people had been trying to figure out how to diagnose a fracture quickly and accurately, whether by building fracture models or microseismic, but there was no consensus. GRI and DOE felt the only way to resolve these issues was to go out there and do measurements. They drilled intercepting wells and they measured the fractures using a whole variety of techniques (ie, with tiltemeter, microseismically, etc) to try to validate which worked. It was very successful, it really validated the microseismic monitoring as a way to measure how fractures propagate.
This technology is now widely used in fracking, correct?
Yes, but the M-Site experiment was from 1992 to 1996. The microseismic mapping as a field service didn’t really start until 2001, 2002, and from there it quickly became widely used. So there was a little bit of a delay while we were doing the validation and others were improving the tools. At M-Site, we took the microseismic measurments and validated them by drilling a deviated well throught the fracture and using various other measurements. Three groups collaborated on the work: Sandia National Labs did the fracture measurements (the part I was most closely involved in), CER corporation operated the site and worked with us to obtain all of the tests and measurements, and RES, a fracture modeling group, contributed to the analysis efforts. Again though, all these groups were funded by GRI and DOE money.
How would you describe the role of the GRI?
They were a very interesting group and funded all sorts of things. They funded the M-Site experiments, and were pushing microseismic mapping for a very long time. RES were funded for probably 10 years to build fracture models. The GRI was heavily involved in lots of the research. In fact, and few people know this, but GRI funded the drilling of the first horizontal well in the early 90’s, several years before Mitchell actually began using them for development.
How did DOE and GRI divide funding and decide to work together?
I don’t know the intricate details exactly, but from what we saw, DOE would put money into site operations, it would fund all the things you do in the field. By contrast, GRI would fund the individual companies working on the project. For the M-Site experiment, Sandia, RES, and CER were funded by GRI. Another thing I would say is that there was clearly a good working relationship between them. Anytime we had a problem or a question on which direction the project should go, we would ask them and they would always work together and I don’t remember there ever being any big disagreement between them.
Can you tell me a little bit more about your interaction and work with Mitchell Energy?
With Mitchell, Sandia actually tried to do microseismic monitoring on three separate occasions. The first time, we had very rudimentary tools so we went back in the late 1990s with better tools and got better data. But because the fracture looked so complex, and very different to what it looked like in sandstone, everybody presumed it wasn’t working very well. With hindsight though, the monitoring was probably quite accurate, it was just that shale formations were very unpredictable and much more complex than people thought.
Here at Breakthrough, we are very interested in understanding the ways in which joint research between national labs and industry can be improved. From your experience, do you remember any especially successful public-private collaboration?
The most successful project I remember was actually with Mitchell Energy. Right before they were sold to Devon, Mitchell was funding Pinnacle, the company I work for now, to do a whole range of measurement, including microseismic, pressure measurements, tiltmeters, etc., in the Barnett Shale. I was at Sandia at the time, funded by GRI, to work with them. GRI was also involved with Pinnacle to develop and promote microseismic. I think it was this project that really opened our eyes to how fracturing worked in the Barnett.
Conversely, anything you thought could have been done better? Dave Northrop was a little critical of the DOE cost-sharing programs because they tended to be really slow to get approved.
Well, what I saw to be the problem with these programs was that no one would ever take the time to figure out what additional science was needed to make sense of the data we found. We would get some information, but we wouldn’t know enough about the geology to make sense of it. So you often ended up with a conclusion like, “This is interesting but we don’t really know what to make of it.” This is why experiments like the Multi-Well and the M-Site were so important because they had enough funding and a long enough timeline to really gather all the necessary information to make sense of the fractures.
Read other interviews with shale pioneeers:
Commentary reflects Warpinski’s experience prior to joining Halliburton.
Photo courtesy of Norm Warpinksi.