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Arctic Frontier Demands Innovation

GAUTIER An ice shield offshore Greenland: The circum-Arctic region is loaded with energy potential, but exploration there is going to demand an emphasis on technical innovations. Photo courtesy of Christine Zenino
GAUTIER An ice shield offshore Greenland: The circum-Arctic region is loaded with energy potential, but exploration there is going to demand an emphasis on technical innovations. Photo courtesy of Christine Zenino

The oil and gas industry has seen a period of tremendous innovation, propelling exploration into frontier plays like ultra-deepwater and shale gas.

But that’s nothing compared to the innovation needed for future exploration.

As the industry eyes new plays in the Arctic, remote offshore prospects and gas hydrates, creative ideas will be essential.

The good news:

In dozens of places and disciplines, innovation continues to push exploration and production forward.

A few areas where innovation is making a difference:

  • Seep detection, monitoring and analysis.
  • Intelligent reservoir modeling.
  • Virtual source method techniques.
  • Passive seismic monitoring.
  • Geokinematics and geodynamic modeling.
  • Remote control operations and robotics.
  • Seismic while drilling.
  • Expandable tubulars and tools.
  • Integrated operations and smart fields.

Not to mention new research in geochemistry and nano-everything – including nanotechnology, nanomaterials and even nano-scale visualization.

Don Gautier, an AAPG member, is a research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif. He recalled studying shale formations many years ago and realizing they contained a huge amount of natural gas – if anyone could figure out how to produce it.

Gautier compared that challenge to today's problem of developing gas hydrates reserves.

“People say about hydrates, 'Oh, that's so remote it will never happen,'” he noted. “That's surprisingly like the attitude about shale gas a couple of decades ago.”

Arctic Proving Grounds

Gautier recently worked on the USGS Circum-Arctic Resource Appraisal that produced estimates of undiscovered oil and gas north of the Arctic Circle.

“The Arctic is one place where innovation is making a world of difference,” he said.

When the resource appraisal was completed, “from our point of view, a number of things jumped out at us,” Gautier observed.

First, the Chukchi Sea, the Beaufort Sea, offshore the Mackenzie Delta “and maybe part of Greenland” were the most likely oil-prospective parts of the Arctic, he said.

“Shell has spent about a zillion dollars on leases in the Chukchi Sea. And we independently see that as the most interesting part of the Arctic,” Gautier noted.

Actually, Shell has committed close to $1.4 billion on leasing blocks offshore northwest Alaska and making drilling plans for the area, in the belief that innovative approaches can lead to oil production there.

Second, the USGS found that most of the Arctic is gas-prone and may contain about 30 percent of the world's remaining conventional natural gas, according to Gautier.

And third, most of the gas is in Russian territory, in places like the south Kara Sea and the Barents Sea.

“The Arctic in general is a place where there's a great deal of uncertainty and all sorts of technical challenges and environmental issues involved. If you look across the Arctic, there's a great spectrum of costs,” Gautier observed.

Adding to the challenge is the prospect of developing and producing reserves in the subsea Arctic, already attracting exploration activity.

“That's the place where we are seeing quite a bit of interest, especially offshore Greenland and off north Alaska. Offshore northern Alaska could be commercial right away, in my opinion,” Gautier said.

He cited offshore northeast Greenland as the kind of exploration province especially attractive to the industry.

“If that was sitting offshore Louisiana, it would have been explored decades ago,” he noted.

Finding and developing those subsea Arctic resources, Gautier said, will require innovative thinking in a number of areas:

  • Ice management.
  • Bringing down transportations costs.
  • Creating a serious and effective plan for controlling spills.
  • Securing an adequate power supply on the seafloor.

“Just imagine the requirements. An example is this Snoehvit Field – the Snow White Field in the Barents Sea – where they've developed it all with subsea installations,” he said.

Creativity in exploration geology also will be required, although Gautier said good, fundamental geology is essential to Arctic projects.

“It's a place where first principles of geology are going to carry the day. A solid geologic model is what's going to succeed there,” he said.

A vast region of the world, the Arctic challenges companies to identify and focus on specific places for evaluation and eventual drilling.

“To be able to do that, you've got to have a solid geological judgment about what area you're interested in,” Gautier said.

‘The Only Way’

Broad innovation will be needed to tackle the newest energy opportunities. Ideally, you’d want an innovative individual working on both gas hydrates and the Arctic, using a computer-centered approach, with carbon sequestration thrown in as a bonus.

And that would be Mark White, a research engineer for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash.

White is working on a computer simulation of injecting carbon dioxide into gas hydrate deposits to release the methane from its clathrated form.

“The concept for injecting carbon dioxide into a hydrates formation started appearing about 10 years ago,” he said.

In recent years, scientists have studied several different ways of producing methane from hydrates. One potential problem is collapse of the hydrates deposit as production takes place.

“There’s a possibility of subsidence occurring. But there’s a possibility of keeping the formation in place, and you do that by injecting CO2,” White said.

Guest-molecule exchange technology addresses the subsidence possibility by replacing the methane molecule with a more thermodynamic molecule, in this case carbon dioxide, to retain the hydraulic and mechanical stability of the hydrate reservoir.

“Getting that to work is the tricky part,” White noted.

A successful process might not only keep the reservoir stable and enable gas production, but also sequester the CO2.

Previous computer simulation found the approach unworkable because of rapid pore plugging, but White is writing new code to add additional variables. It’s an area with little fieldwork for background.

“There really hasn’t been enough experimentation going on to validate those tools,” White said.

“I do have some experimental data I can work against. I have a Korean colleague coming in and he has some existing data,” he added.

White plans to write a paper on the results with collaborator Suntichai Silpngarmlert, a ConocoPhillips researcher, and present it at the inaugural Arctic Technology Conference in Houston Feb. 7-9.

As with so many other areas of current research, innovation is the key.

“The solution to this problem, how to make the exchange happen, you have to have some creative ideas. There may be ideas out there nobody has thought about,” White said.

With scientific work going on in multiple frontier research areas, any new contribution or information can make a substantial difference.

“If you’re able to drill a well off the northeast part of Greenland, it would be the kind of thing that could completely change the game,” Gautier noted.

“Any time you can gather information in the Arctic, it’s vastly more important than developing some new information about the (U.S.) onshore, in Oklahoma, for instance,” he added.

And innovative thinking is taking exploration into the new frontiers and the years ahead. Said Gautier:

“Innovation is the only way through. It’s the only way.”

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Emphasis: Exploration Innovations