Fundamentals of Shale Energy Development: Geology, Hydraulic Fracturing, and Environmental, Geopolitical and Socio-economic Impacts

Future Research Needs

Future Research Needs

Over the course of this class, we've explored a wide variety of topics with shale energy development including the geology, drilling and fracturing technologies, environmental impacts, and socioeconomic factors. Having a solid grasp on each of these topics is important whether you are an energy company representative, regulator, consultant, business developer, or an environmental group in order to achieve your objectives and goals. Shale energy development in the US has lead to some fascinating new insights on the geology, geochemistry, and hydrogeology of regions where drilling activities have taken place, and in many cases leave geologists scratching their heads about new questions and theories. The advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing over the last decade have been nothing short of amazing, leading to shorter drill times, longer laterals, higher producing wells, with less environmental footprint and cost. Designing wells and fracturing them using technologies that increase the recovery efficiency of hydrocarbons are areas where the industry is focusing research. On the downstream side, the utilization of natural gas and oil for everything from power generation, petrochemicals, manufacturing, and transportation fuels will continue into the foreseeable future, however, we should use these resources wisely.

The future opportunities for innovations in shale energy development and utilization are vast, and should excite scientists working in these fields (we know at least one of you in this course will make a major technological breakthrough that betters pressure!) While there is no shortage of opportunities, shale energy development, and production has lead to concern with respect to environmental impacts, climate change, and the possibility for impacts to human health. We are seeing increases in regulations to protect human health and the environment, and those regulations and policies are showing fewer incidents of spills, contamination events, and associated violations, which are clearly trends in the right direction. Given all of what we now know about the various phases of shale energy development, there are still questions on impacts to human health, which has surprisingly been studied on a fairly limited basis to date. Some recent studies have shown a statisical correlation between distance from shale energy operations and impacts to health including increases in difficult pregnancies, lower infant birthweights, aggravated asthma, and other respiratory conditions. These studies do not show causation of these symptoms from shale development, much less any exposure pathways via breathing air or drinking water that is somehow contaminated but do provide a basis for which more research in the medical fields is needed to address these potential concerns. Whether you are a geologist, engineer, economist, sociologist, medical professional or environmental scientist there is no shortage of research opportunities with shale energy development (and the world is always looking for better ways to do things!).

Dr. Terry Engelder discusses some of the future research needs for shale energy to minimize environmental and health impacts while maximizing the production from shale formations.

Video: Terry Engelder, Research Needs (1:41)

Click here for the video transcript.

Dave Yoxtheimer: What areas of shale energy research do you feel need more study?

Terry Engelder: I think one of the major questions is, still, "What is the impact to human health on the industrialization that comes along with gas shale production?" And there has been some statistical studies that suggest that there are slight changes to human health in the presence of such industrialization. Now we know, for example, that the presence of highways, the presence of factories, and a bunch of other manufacturing facilities, do impact human health so that hydraulic fracturing is going to be no exception to that. Another area of research that is going to affect the industry a great deal, concerns the issue of fracture stages in wellbores. It is known that most of the economic value of a particular well comes from about one-third of the fracture stages. The most expensive part of hydraulic fracturing is not the drilling of the well but rather the stimulation of that well. And if an operator can eliminate two-thirds of the stages for fracturing and benefit from one-third of the stages that produce a lot of gas, then a lot of money will be saved. And so I have named two of what I think are maybe the most significant areas for research and there are obviously others that are less pressing.

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