After 100-plus years of domestic drilling, you'd think the oil and gas
industry would have its technology in place.
Not so. Companies are pushing into emerging technologies, experimenting with everything from fiber optics to lasers in an effort to get at oil and gas that's increasingly difficult to extract, said Greg Powers, senior vice president of technology for the Houston-based oil-field service giant Halliburton.
"It's harder to get to," said Powers, who spoke Friday at the summer conference for the Texas Independent Producers & Royalty Owners Association, which is meeting at the Westin La Cantera Hill Country Resort. "It's more obtuse locations. Everything is deeper or it's more horizontal, so there's a lot more hydraulic fracturing."
Hydraulic fracturing uses a mix of water, sand and chemicals pumped at high pressure to crack open dense shale rock, releasing trapped oil and gas. While decreasing the use of chemicals and millions of gallons of fresh water in fracking is a major scientific and public relations effort by the industry, companies also are experimenting with other technologies.
Halliburton has used fiber optics to listen to the real-time fracturing of a well in Louisiana. It's also experimenting with using a laser to break into rock instead of a traditional drill bit -- something Powers called "a laboratory curiosity" for now that's many years away from use in the field.
More immediately, Cal Cooper, manager of special projects in the CEO's office at Apache Corp., said the industry is quickly reducing the use of fresh water for hydraulic fracturing.
Of the 905 million barrels of water that Apache used in the Permian Basin and the Anadarko Basin last year, only 50 million barrels -- about 6 percent -- was fresh water. The bulk of the water the company used was either brackish, taken from aquifers unusable by people, livestock or crops, or recycled produced water -- the water that comes back up a well with oil and gas during production.
The industry should track the use of fresh, brackish and produced water, Cooper said. "We as an industry can start monitoring better how much water we're actually using. Once we know data, we can solve problems."
Although agriculture uses more water, Cooper said it doesn't matter.
"I don't want to argue with them about that," he said. "It may be factual that we use only 5 or 10 percent of the water that the farmers in West Texas use. But so what? They were there first, kind of, and they're using it for their reasons."
Overall, the amount of water used in hydraulic fracturing isn't large, said state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio. But in some regions of intense activity, the relatively new fresh water draw has a noticeable impact.
"Hauling water by truck to and from drilling sites is also tearing up roads, presenting another cost," Uresti said.
In addition to using less fresh water in the future, Powers said the industry may also need to use fewer people.
Universities are lagging several years behind the latest U.S. energy boom, unable to produce enough skilled graduates to feed into companies.
"So the work that we do in the field is going to have to be less human intervention, more science or engineering, more computing," Powers said.
The oil and gas industry also may need to rely less on local utilities.
Mark Brocklehurst, director of technology and sales for unconventional resources for GE Oil & Gas, said that stressed rural co-ops have been largely unable to handle the demands of the remote oil fields. But he said that natural gas-powered generators can quickly provide power in remote areas.
And in a broader sense, he said that the industry needs to start using the country's abundant natural gas to power its work. "There's no point in burning diesel," Brocklehurst said. "As operators, we need to get off that. We need to be pushing natural gas consumption."
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