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Oil Discoveries: Pennsylvania Leads the Way

Oil Discoveries:  Pennsylvania Leads the Way


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Early humans encountered naturally seeping oil deposits at scattered sites throughout the world. Spanish explorers of California in the 1540s noticed oil; likewise, the later De Soto expedition found it in what is today Texas.Yale chemist Benjamin Silliman Jr. earned the title, "father of the petroleum industry," thanks to his development of fractionation methods essential for deriving distillates from oil.Experiments with “rock oil” by Silliman in 1855 revealed that highly useful kerosene and other byproducts could be produced economically.In 1859, “Colonel” Edwin L. Cleveland and Pittsburgh became leading refinement centers.Kerosene became widely available as a fuel for heating and illumination. Discovery of cheap oil helped to change lifestyles throughout much of the world by enabling nighttime business and leisure activities.The oil era coincided with development of the steel industry. Such business luminaries as John D. Rockefeller expressed an early interest in the oil business, but he was negatively impressed by the chaos of the Pennsylvania oil fields. He understood that oil could fulfill its potential only if its production were stringently centralized—and he capitalized on the situation.The Pennsylvania oil heydey did not last long, but huge new discoveries were made in Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and California. They would dwarf the earlier supplies.


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Location of the Polarcus Block A2-A5 multi-client 3D seismic survey. Polarcus, in collaboration with The Gambia’s Ministry of Petroleum and GeoPartners, has recently completed a 1,504 km 2 RightBAND TM Multi-Client 3D seismic survey over Blocks A2 and A5, within the prolific MSGBC Basin offshore The Gambia. This modern broadband data volume lies in an area with no previous 3D seismic coverage, and where the commerciality of the SNE oil discovery in neighboring Senegal has recently been confirmed. Screening of the new 3D multi-client volume has identified a number of both structural and stratigraphic leads on trend with the Senegalese discoveries, confirming that the new deepwater clastic play concept extends into The Gambia. Polarcus’ Block A2-A5 survey provides optimum imaging to allow evaluation of this highly prospective area.

The survey was acquired in this geologically complex area using the Polarcus Alima towing a 12 x 100m x 8,100m ultra-quiet Sentinel ® solid-streamer spread with an 18.75m flip flop shot interval and a nine-second record length. The data has been processed by DownUnder GeoSolutions through broadband pre-stack time and depth migration workflows.

The seismic line below appeared as a multi-page pull-out feature in our print magazine. To subscribe to the print magazine use the 'Print Subscription' feature in the menu at the top of this page.

Regional east-north-east to west-south-west seismic line. PSTM volume after a simple 1D conversion to depth.

Extension of a New Oil-Prone Fairway

The Polarcus Block A2-A5 survey is located in The Gambia’s offshore Casamance-Bissau sub-basin, located in the southern part of the greater Senegal Basin. The area has seen recent renewed industry focus due to three successive hydrocarbon discoveries on the adjacent Cairn-operated acreage in Senegalese waters to the north. The world class SNE-1 and FAN-1 oil discoveries in Albian-aged sandstones have opened up a new oilprone fairway with multiple play types. Similar plays along the West Africa margin are already in development or production, and the adjacent acreage in The Gambia provides a number of leads and prospects on-trend to these exciting discoveries.

Cross section across the FAN-1 and SNE-1 discoveries. (FAR Limited 2015) Exploration for hydrocarbons in The Gambia dates back to the 1950s, but none of the companies involved in the early exploration of the area progressed beyond initial studies apart from Chevron, who drilled Jammah-1 in 1979. This is located in Block A2 and to date is the only well drilled offshore The Gambia. It was plugged and abandoned with gas shows at a TD of 3,020m. It targeted an Albian shelf-edge carbonate feature slightly to the east of the axis of a large north-south trending anticline and encountered viable sandstone and carbonate reservoir horizons but only minor petroleum shows. The well was drilled on the basis of 2D seismic data and post-well studies suggested it was dry due to erosion of potential Turonian source rocks at the location, though analysis of the new seismic data acquired by Polarcus in 2015 suggests it did not test a valid structural closure.

Studies have reviewed the offshore exploration potential and a range of play types including fan and slope channel systems, karstified reef build-ups, 4-way closures and clastic deposits onlapping the shelf edge have been identified. No further drilling has taken place offshore The Gambia.

A New Oil Province

In 2014 Cairn drilled two deepwater exploration wells offshore Senegal, SNE-1 and FAN-1 both wells discovered oil, opening a new hydrocarbon basin on the Atlantic Margin. FAN-1, the first well drilled in deepwater offshore Senegal, is located in 1,427m of water in the Sangomar Deep Block. It encountered high quality light oil in multiple stacked deepwater Cretaceous clastic fan bodies with 29m of net oil-bearing reservoir located in a combined structural and stratigraphic trap. The second deepwater exploration well, SNE-1, located in 1,100m of water approximately 24 km from the FAN-1 discovery, targeted Albian sandstones overlying Aptian carbonates. A 95m gross oil column with a gas cap was encountered in excellent quality Albian reservoir sands with 36m of net oil pay. However, no hydrocarbons were encountered in the deeper carbonates.

The SNE-1 discovery was appraised by the SNE-2 well which flowed up to 8,000 bopd on DST, confirming the high delivery of the principal reservoir unit and the connectivity of the principal reservoir with the discovery well. In March 2016 Cairn announced the results of further appraisal drilling with the successful testing of the SNE-3 well, which flowed at a maximum rate of 5,400 bopd on DST. The well confirmed similar reservoir quality and correlation of the principal reservoir units with SNE-1 and SNE-2, including similar oil-down-to and oil-up-to depths. Initial indications confirmed the same 32° API oil quality as seen in the previous wells.

Further exploration followed with BEL-1, which drilled the Bellatrix Prospect and tested the Buried Hills play, discovering gas in two good quality Cenomanian sandstone reservoirs. The well was deepened to further appraise the SNE discovery and to progress towards proving a minimum economic field size. It also confirmed the extension of reservoirs and oil column on the northern flank of the discovery. Estimates by the operator Cairn, post the SNE-2 well, suggest contingent reserves of 385 MMbo and further analysis of the resource is underway as further appraisal drilling is ongoing.

Cross-section across the SNE discovery and subsequent appraisal and exploration program. (FAR Limited 15 March 2016)

Gambia: The Aptian-Albian Shelf

The Block A2-A5 area lies immediately to the south and along structural trend with the recent discoveries in neighboring Senegal. The Jurassic to Aptian carbonates are overlain by a series of Albian sequences displaying large scale clinoforms. These occur as a number of discrete stacked systems, each prograding from east toward the west. The clinoforms can be seen to be laterally extensive across the area, providing the potential for reservoir sandstones across the shelf. As well as providing reservoir sands into a number of structural play types, the evolution of the delta-to-slope systems provides possible stratigraphic components to plays within shelfal distributary systems, shelf edge clinoforms and more basin-ward down dip sand-bodies.

Uplift and rotation due to the withdrawal of Triassic salt led to erosion of the Aptian-Albian shelf and the overlying Upper Cretaceous sequence. This has provided a further series of prospective play types with structural components. Gambia Blocks A2-A5 contain all the necessary components of a successful petroleum system as seen immediately to the north in Senegal, with potential existing for source rocks in several Jurassic to Cretaceous sequences both outboard the shelf-slope break and across the shelf area.

Multiple Play Types

Slice through a structural 3-way dip closure bounded to the east by a faulted margin. PSTM volume after a simple 1D conversion to depth. Polygon shows a mapped Albian lead (see seismic panel below). Interpretation of the newly acquired 3D multi-client volume has identified a number of play types across the shelf and shelf edge areas including: 4-way dip closures, fault bounded 3-way dip closures, Buried Hills plays, and slope fan and stratigraphic plays. A number of examples are presented herein.

Structural 4-Way Dip Closures: Initial interpretation of the final PSTM data volume after a simple 1D conversion to depth shows a number of 4-way dip closures affecting the Albian sequence all along the shelf edge area across Blocks A2-A5. Interpretation of the full PSDM data volume, due in the third quarter of 2016, will allow proper evaluation of this exciting series of leads.

Structural Fault Bounded 3-Way Dip Closures: A series of rollovers into the prominent north-north-east to south-south-west trending faulting affecting the uppermost Albian sequence is observed. The 3D data reveals a number of closures at this stratigraphic level forming a series of leads along strike. Deeper within the sequence the Albian is less affected by this fault system and 4-way closures occur.

Structural 3-way dip closure bounded to the east by a faulted margin. PSTM volume after a simple 1D conversion to depth.

The Buried Hills Play

Analogs to the Cenomanian Buried Hills play as successfully drilled in the BEL-1 exploration well can be seen across the A2-A5 area. Erosion and incision of the Upper Cretaceous sequence has resulted in trapping of Cenomanian sand-bodies sealed by the overlying Tertiary and Cretaceous shales and claystones. The new 3D data enables interpretation of the depositional packages within the Cenomanian, allowing evaluation of a number of leads. The example below, which also displays a structural 4-way dip closure of the underlying Albian sequence, is analogous to the section across the SNE and BEL discoveries.

Buried Hills play offshore The Gambia. PSTM volume

Selected References

Cairn Energy (2016) Web Site. Operations. Senegal. Activity.

Cairn Energy (4th January 2016): Web Site. News. Successful Senegal Appraisal Well.

Cairn Energy (9th March 2016): Web Site. News. Second Successful Senegal Appraisal Well.

Cairn Energy (March 2016): Preliminary Results Presentation.

Chevron Oil Company of the Gambia (1979): Jammah No. 1 The Republic of the Gambia Final Geological & Drilling Report.

Erin Energy (2016): Web Site.

FAR Limited (2015). Investor Presentation. FAR Delivers in Senegal.

FAR Limited (2016): Web Site. Senegal. Two world class oil discoveries in the FAN-1 and SNE-1 wells offshore Senegal.

FAR Limited (19 August 2015): ASX Announcement & Media Release. Senegal exploration well to target Bellatrix prospect.

FAR Limited (15 March 2016): ASX Announcement & Media Release. BEL-1 well starts drilling offshore Senegal.

FAR Limited (11 April 2016): ASX Announcement & Media Release. Gas discovered at Bellatrix – Fourth appraisal well confirmed.


Brian Alfaro, the Process of Geological Surveying

Exploration for oil and natural gas resources will usually start off with a group of geologists examining and analyzing the surface of the earth of the location in question, explains San Antonio business leader, Brian Alfaro. They will determine if the area is likely to be a location that holds either petroleum or gas deposits. In the 1800’s it was found that anticlinal slopes had a larger chance of containing either natural gas or oil deposits. These slopes are locations where the earth has folded up on itself, which in turn forms a dome like shape that is found in many oil and natural gas reservoirs.

By looking over a survey of the area in question and mapping out the surface using the latest in geographical tools, notes Brian K. Alfaro, these technicians are able to find out more about the characteristics of a location and can tell the oil companies which areas are more likely to contain the oil and natural gas resources that they are looking for. This process helps to greatly reduce the amount of drilling that takes place in a reservoir while helping the workers to find the best places to receive the highest amount of oil and natural gas resources possible.

By analyzing the formation of the rocks and other valleys and gorges on the surface of the earth the geologists are able to report back to the oil companies that they are working for and let them know about the best places in the area to set up new drilling sites. Geologists are able to obtain this valuable information by taking samples from the earth as well as rock formations in the area.


Pennsylvania State Facts

Pennsylvania's 63,200 farms (occupying nearly 8 million acres) are the backbone of the state's economy, producing a wide variety of crops. Leading commodities are dairy products, corn, cattle and calves, mushrooms, poultry and eggs, a variety of fruits, sweet corn, potatoes, maple syrup, and Christmas trees.

Pennsylvania's rich heritage draws billions of tourist dollars annually. Among the chief attractions are the Gettysburg National Military Park, Valley Forge National Historical Park, Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Dutch region, the Eisenhower farm near Gettysburg, and the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.


The rise and fall -- and rise? -- of Pa.'s oil and gas industry

In this June 25, 2012, file photo, a crew works on a gas drilling rig at a well site for shale based natural gas in Zelienople, Pa.

(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

Americans once had to hope for summers without hurricanes and years without international turmoil if they wanted to pay less at the pump.

Even a low-category storm could hit a refinery and shut down production, driving up gas prices.

And if war - or the threat of war - erupted in Iran or Syria, prices increased on fears of a choked supply.

When Range Resources drilled the first Marcellus Shale well in southwestern Pennsylvania in October 2004, the U.S. was still importing energy from the Middle East.

The fracking boom changed that, and Pennsylvania is now one of the states exporting fuel overseas.

Record-breaking production levels have created a supply so vast, gas prices are half of what they were a couple years ago, and oil prices decreased from $140 to $30 a barrel.

"People don't have to worry about hurricanes anymore," said Sam Andrus, senior director of the North American Natural Gas division at IHS Energy, a Colorado-based analyst firm.

Energy independence is a fulfilled promise of the shale revolution, and there were many more investments on the ledger from the days when companies started busting through bedrock a mile beneath farms, backyards and state forests.

In a just a few years, the oil and gas industry became known as "the industry," as though all other business sectors in Pennsylvania were on a second tier. They weren't, but fracking had all the charm, advantages and disadvantages of being the new act.

Energy companies started new divisions and headquarters in Pennsylvania, focusing on growing their shale bootprints. Millions in corporate donations covered food, coats, heating costs and more for cash-strapped nonprofits. Rural landowners became millionaires from gas royalties. Small boroughs, such as Towanda, received national attention and became known as boomtowns.

"We were sitting on some of the cheapest gas in the world," said Tony Ventello, executive director of the Central Bradford Progress Authority in Towanda.

Bradford County sits atop the home-grown dry gas drillers couldn't wait to extract.

A Seneca Resources drilling rig completes the fourth of six wells at a Marcellus Shale gas well pad in Shippen Township, Cameron County.

Once geologists discovered there was enough fuel locked deep within the Appalachian Basin to meet the country's energy needs for two decades, oil and gas companies figured out how to drill into it vertically, a mile deep, then bore horizontally.

The four wells drilled in 2005 ballooned to more than 3,000 by 2010.

With that boom came more jobs and more residents.

"You had to start thinking about when to go to the grocery store to avoid the long lines," Ventello said.

Bradford County has about 1,200 wells, according to state data.

Washington County has about the same amount, and residents there also noticed longer lines in stores and restaurants during the boom.

Nearly 10,000 well permits have been issued across the state during the last 10 years.

"Overall, it had a tremendous effect. Washington County has grown," said Wayne Hunnell, secretary of the Washington County Fair.

With that growth came a bevy of concerned community members who, at times, protested the increased truck traffic and called on the state regulators for more environmental oversight.

In a state with a long - and sometimes tainted - history of development, from the Industrial Age to the first oil well in Titusville to King Coal, the Marcellus Shale boom was the latest energy frontier facing many unknowing residents. Most Pennsylvanians were completely unaware of shale development until a landman showed at their doors and asked them to lease their properties to drilling companies.

Staff at Penn State University's Extension offices became mediators.

The agricultural offices helped landowners settle leases for twice as much as what was originally offered, according to Dean Rick Roush, who leads the College of Agricultural Sciences.

Before and during the shale boom, Penn State received millions in donations from oil and gas companies. Some of that money funneled through and helped establish the Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research.

The university took "a very broad role" during the shale boom, Penn State President Eric Barron said during a recent editorial board meeting with PennLive.

"We really are a source of a great deal of information," he said, citing the university's expertise in geology, environmental science, energy development and more.

Just as oil and gas companies donated to Penn State - a practice that had been in place before the boom - the industry poured millions of dollars into politics and public relations campaigns. Eventually, hundreds of candidates, including the president, were talking about "clean-burning natural gas."

President Barack Obama supported fracking as an alternative to coal in his mission to fight climate change. Other federal and state lawmakers saw it as an economic driver in their districts or a reason to beef up regulatory oversight.

"In our state, there was some criticism of the Department of Environmental Protection," said Terry Madonna, veteran political analyst and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.

His polling revealed state residents were "reasonably satisfied" with shale development and "didn't have a negative view of it."

"They want it done in an environmentally safe way . and they don't want drilling in state parks. They do want a severance tax, but they're not opposed to fracking," Madonna said.

The question of how to tax the industry has been a political football since the boom started.

Former Gov. Ed Rendell did not get the severance tax he wanted in 2010. His successor, former Gov. Tom Corbett, in 2012 signed into law an impact fee, which has supplied more than $800 million to counties across the state. Gov. Tom Wolf's recent severance tax proposal was opposed by House and Senate Republicans.

State and federal regulations were grossly outpaced by the growth of industry. By 2011, more than a fourth of Pennsylvania was leased to oil and gas companies. A set of updated laws governing the industry wasn't passed until 2012.

But all that growth was expensive. Many drillers borrowed to grow and accumulated billions in debt as they increased operations in the Marcellus and Utica shales in Pennsylvania, and other shale areas throughout the country.

By mid-2014, it was evident something had changed. Oil and gas prices dropped and remained flat, and spending was growing faster than revenues.

More than 100 oil and gas companies amassed $106 billion in debt, according to a June 2014 report from the Energy Information Association.

Debt doubled in four years, while revenue grew about 6 percent, according to the report.

Even though growth slowed, production increased. Drillers spent the first part of the boom leasing land and fracking wells, and then they figured out how to make those wells more productive.

Soon, there was an oversupply on the market big enough to heat every household in Pennsylvania for six years.

This wasn't the scenario drillers imagined when oil was selling for $140 a barrel and gas was about $15 for a million British thermal units. Now, prices are about $38 a barrel and $2.

Drillers across the country are struggling through the worst oil and gas bust in decades, partially because OPEC has refused to cut production.

OPEC, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, is the production cartel of more than a dozen Middle Eastern countries led by Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq.

Those countries have been drowning the market in fuel to put U.S. producers out of business and hold onto their market share.

"OPEC just didn't like the Americans outcompeting them," said Andrus, the analyst from IHS Energy.

The chief executive of the Saudi Arabian Oil Company said during a conference in December that he hoped to see oil prices increase at the beginning of this year as U.S. shale drilling starts to decline.

In recent weeks, OPEC has discussed halting production, but analysts at Goldman Sachs said it might be too late.

The oil cartel is "highly unlikely" to cut production, and even if it did, prices probably wouldn't be affected, they said. Supply continues to grow and demand hasn't caught up.

Wall Street analysts, as well as oil and gas trade groups, say this oversupply will have many companies facing bankruptcies and consolidations this year.

Dozens of small drillers have already filed for bankruptcy, and hundreds of jobs have been slashed statewide.

A Seneca Resources drilling rig completes the fourth of six wells at a Marcellus Shale gas well pad in Shippen Township, Cameron County. Driller Dale Lambson works at the control console. Seneca Resources gives a tour of Marcellus Shale gas drilling operations in Elk and Cameron counties in northern Pennsylvania, May 14, 2015. Dan Gleiter, PennLive.com

In the last two months, the industry has been hit with a spate of bad news, including more layoffs, a renewed push for the severance tax, the unexpected death of an industry pioneer, pipeline delays and a federal crackdown on methane emissions.

To survive the continued downturn, some drillers are forced to keep producing to cover expenses and debt payments.

"But the market doesn't need all that gas, especially when it's getting warm," he said.

During the second half of the year, "we're going to see a decline in oil and gas production," Andrus said. That's when supply and demand will start to get into balance.

It could be two or three years before the industry rebounds.

"Marcellus and Utica shales are likely to stay constrained through 2018 and 2019 until they can get the gas out," Andrus said.

Drillers need a spider web of pipelines to be built and and start moving gas to help reduce supply.

But the buildout could be a double-edged sword for drillers that are locked into high-cost contracts with pipeline companies.

The payments may not be affordable for drillers given the low prices they get paid for the gas and the high cost they pay to transport it.

Those payments could force more bankruptcies and layoffs.

"It's not going to be a painless recovery, but there will be a recovery," Andrus said.

The oil and gas industry has always been cyclical. When the pendulum swings toward higher prices, producers rush in to start drilling. When it swings the other way, companies cut operations until prices recover.

"We're going to lose a lot of companies. Those who have never been through an energy cycle before may not come back," Andrus said.

He expects oil prices to increase late next year.

Gas prices could climb at the same time if there's a normal winter and it's not warm.

"But they're going to struggle to get above $3. It could be 2020 before that happens," he said.

The strong companies will survive this downturn, and the first one to frack in Pennsylvania - Range Resources - will likely be standing when prices rebound, analysts said.

"I think gas prices will gradually grow during the next decade, eventually hitting $4 by 2040," Andrus said. "America is going to be very energy competitive. We're going to keep OPEC from having much power for a long period of time."


Reducing Unplanned Maintenance – Oil Corrosion Risk Analysis

In downstream operations for the oil and gas industry, corrosion by crude oil is a huge risk for equipment failures. Depending on the chemical composition of the crude or the environment in which it is stored, veteran corrosion engineers can devise methods to avoid equipment downtimes.

Digitizing this knowledge and delivering maintenance insights to new engineers might now be possible with AI. For detecting oil corrosion risks, companies can use NLP and machine learning develop a searchable database of maintenance information from data such as refinery incident reports and physical properties different types of crude. This data can be structured or, in most cases, unstructured in the form of word documents or PDFs.

An NLP system could parse through maintenance data to aggregate knowledge from veteran corrosion engineers, for example. Engineers could use an NLP-based search system to find information about how to avoid corrosion for different types of crude by interfacing with a dashboard.

Inspection repair and maintenance are areas where oil and gas firms collect vast amounts of data, a majority of which is usually unstructured or even hand-written. NLP and text mining can be used to extract, classify, and correlate the vast amount of knowledge gained by engineers over the years.

This is especially important in the oil and gas industry due to the Great Crew Change, a phenomenon that refers to the large age gap in the oil and gas workforce, where most engineers and geoscientists are either over 55 or under 35. This means that the experience of the veteran engineers is not always fully transferred to the next generation of engineers, and AI data search and discovery might be a strong fit for resolving this issue.


Bacteria lead the way to more efficient oil production

In the rocky depths of the nation&rsquos shale oil fields, thousands of feet below the production frenzy, primordial bacteria subsist on the very hydrocarbons that make up oil and gas and have transformed the U.S. into an energy powerhouse rivaling Saudi Arabia and Russia.

The microbes are among the least-studied life forms on earth, emerging to the surface as anonymous organisms thought to have evolved within the harsh extremes of the subsurface over hundreds of millions of years. Oil and gas producers for decades paid them limited attention &mdash until a cutting-edge startup recognized their potential to help produce oil and gas even more efficiently.

Now, as industry competition intensifies, a growing number of producers have partnered with Biota, a startup developing the means of achieving that goal by analyzing the bacteria that emerge from the wellhead. More than 20 producers in the Permian Basin and elsewhere have shipped rock and fluid samples to the company&rsquos San Diego lab, intrigued by the promise of data that could help them drill more precisely, lower production costs and boost profits.

The Silicon Valley start-up Biota is analyzing bacteria to make oil and gas production more efficient. Highlights include:

400 million DNA sequences

Think of it as biotechnology meets petroleum engineering. Unique microbial colonies reside within the various layers, cracks and faults in any given oil basin, making it possible to discern the boundaries of deep underground formations by analyzing the DNA of the bacteria within them. In the Permian, for example, bacteria in two overlapping layers &mdash the Bone Spring and the Wolfcamp &mdash are biologically distinct, providing markers that could determine whether a well is drawing from one source or the other during the course of operations.

That&rsquos critical information for drillers trying to make the best use of each well. Right now, if a company drills two wells, one targeting the Bone Spring, the other the Wolfcamp, it is challenged to know for sure if those wells are drawing from their intended targets. Both wells could be sucking oil from, say, the Bone Spring, depleting that source more quickly while missing out on the crude from the Wolfcamp.

Biota CEO Ajay Kshatriya, a chemical engineer who grew up in Katy and spent much of his career in California&rsquos biotech industry, compares oilfield acreage to a six-pack of soda, each can a distinct formation or reservoir. The producer aims to place one straw in each can, but sometimes, two straws wind up in the same can, doubling the company&rsquos cost to produce what could have been done with one. And there&rsquos the chance that some cans will remain unopened, leaving profits underground.

&ldquoBy understanding the boundaries of those cans,&rdquo Kshatriya said, &ldquoyou know where to put the wells.&rdquo

For all of their advanced technology &mdash seismic imaging, computer models and production monitors &mdash energy companies still can&rsquot be certain where oil and gas is coming from once the shale rock is shattered through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. It&rsquos like throwing a rock at a window even with perfect planning and aim, the cracks will zig-zag unpredictably in any direction. It becomes even more unpredictable thousands of feet below ground.

That&rsquos where the bacteria, among the earth&rsquos oldest organisms, come in. Over the eons, the bacteria adapted to particular conditions underground, diversifying genetically into different strains depending on heat, pressure and other conditions in the mishmash of prehistoric sediment overlapping in different formations. In other words, the strains of bacteria in the Wolfcamp have a different genetic makeups than those in the Bone Spring.

Biota, which has offices in California and Houston, uses DNA sequencing, computer algorithms and a proprietary database to identify the strains of bacteria that come up through oil and gas wells and maps those microbes to their respective formations based on where the samples were taken. Drawing on more than 20,000 samples from some 500 wells in the Permian and nine other basins, Biota has analyzed more than 400 million DNA sequences from the nation&rsquos most prolific production areas, and recently began working with offshore customers in the Gulf of Mexico and Asia.

As the map becomes more extensive and detailed, oil and gas companies would be able to confirm the source of crude &mdash and adjust operations as needed &mdash with information about the bacteria produced from the well. It&rsquos another tool for an industry than can no longer count on $100 a barrel oil to cover cost overruns, especially as investors increase pressure to keep a lid on costs and boost profits.

Marathon Oil and EP Energy of Houston and Anadarko Petroleum of The Woodlands have signed on with Biota, as have Norway&rsquos Equinor and Australia&rsquos BHP Billiton, among others. Recently, Midland&rsquos Concho Resources, Pennsylvania&rsquos EQT Resources and Malaysia&rsquos Petronas joined the customer roster.

John Gibson, chairman of energy technology at Houston energy investment bank Tudor Pickering Holt & Co., has worked for the past year to connect Biota with the bank&rsquos oil and gas clients, extolling the insights expected to come when the company has analyzed enough bacterial DNA to map wide production areas. The bank has not invested in Biota.

&ldquoThe more we know about the bacteria, the more we know about the reservoir,&rdquo Gibson said. &ldquoThere is enormous potential here.&rdquo

For oil and gas companies, the data has the potential to show far more than how a single well performs once it&rsquos fracked. Data from multiple wells could determine how they interact and help producers find the optimal number of wells to develop a reservoir. And it could enable them to monitor production over time &mdash a well that starts off siphoning oil from the Wolfcamp, for example, could, at some point, begin to draw from a different formation.

Anadarko was one of the first companies to conduct a large-scale pilot program with Biota last January, starting with a study of 33 wells in the Delaware region of the Permian. It has since expanded the study to include more than 100 wells there in pursuit of a broader data set that could help it enhance its drilling models and more quickly determine the most efficient means of achieving production targets.

&ldquoThink about drilling a well like a recipe,&rdquo said Jose Silva, Anadarko&rsquos lead business strategist for advanced analytics and emerging technologies. &ldquoEnhancing that recipe over time is something that happens naturally, but there&rsquos a lot of money that we leave on the table.&rdquo

As part of Anadarko&rsquos initial study, Biota analyzed the bacterial DNA from wells in two distinct formations and estimated that only about half them produced oil solely from their respective areas. The rest produced oil from the other formation or a combination of the two, demonstrating overlapping production between wells.

Anadarko hasn&rsquot yet made changes in the field based on its work with Biota, but Silva expects more data will help the company to better determine where and how to drill its wells. Eventually, he said, the deeper understanding of oil reservoirs through bacterial analysis could enable the company to respond more quickly to fluctuations in oil prices, helping to determine the most lucrative approach to production when prices rise or fall.

&ldquoInstead of a proxy for an unknown, it is almost like a direct measurement of an unknown,&rdquo Silva said. &ldquoIt takes uncertainty out of your model.&rdquo


Climate Solutions

Science leads the way to a healthier planet for all living things.

This article was updated on December 10, 2020.

Tackling climate change is vitally important. Each successive month brings new heat records, extreme weather and other indicators that our climate is changing at a pace that threatens the quality of our lands, air and waters, the well-being and prosperity of our communities, and general stability around the world.

The Nature Conservancy is committed to advancing solutions that match the scale and urgency of this crisis. Led by science, we are committed to tackling climate change, both to keep global warming below 2°C and to help vulnerable people and places deal with its negative impacts.

We are working to achieve this by:

  • Protecting and restoring healthy and resilient natural landscapes.
  • Mobilizing action to secure a clean energy future.
  • Supporting laws and initiatives that promote a healthy planet.
  • Accelerating natural climate solutions that address environmental threats.

Cumberland Forest The Nature Conservancy's Cumberland Forest project protects 253,000 acres of Appalachian forest and is one of TNC's largest-ever conservation efforts in the eastern United States. © Byron Jorjorian

Building Resilience

As rising temperatures and other climate impacts threaten to destabilize natural areas across the United States and around the world, TNC scientists are identifying ecologically diverse and connected landscapes capable of supporting native wildlife while providing drinking water, clean air, fertile soil and other important natural services to people.

TNC has identified two Pennsylvania landscapes capable of standing up to a changing climate, if they are protected to strengthen resilience:

In these places, TNC is working with partners to implement innovative, science-based tools and conservation approaches that preserve lands and waters today to benefit nature and people in the future. One approach includes conserving forests through our Working Woodlands program, which engages private landowners in permanently protecting and managing healthy and productive forests to support both nature and local livelihoods.

As part of Working Woodlands, TNC quantifies carbon stored in enrolled forests to qualify them for an emerging carbon market where companies and other institutions purchase carbon credits from willing sellers to offset their own emissions.

Solar Panels A field of solar panels produce energy for a nearby community. © American Public Power Association


Oil Discoveries: Pennsylvania Leads the Way - History

When William Schultz wrote his history of conservation law in Pennsylvania, the state was still an industrial powerhouse, a powerhouse made possible by its abundant natural resources. In the early 1950s, Schultz and others were deeply concerned about the state of Pennsylvania's environment. Of the more than thirteen million acres once farmed in Pennsylvania, more than five million had been lost to the erosion of topsoil. Pollution had rendered much of the state's flowing streams and rivers unusable. "Only suicides, uninformed children, and the mentally deficient," Schultz wrote, "voluntarily dive into the lower Monongahela, the lower Allegheny or the upper Ohio."

Pennsylvania communities suffered from growing shortages of ground water. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, miners had scraped and stripped the countryside to obtain minerals close to the surface, then abandoned it. Forests had been clear-cut, destroyed by fires and damaged by insects and disease. Flooding, which many feared was becoming more severe, occurred as soil washed into streams, leaving the exposed earth to bake hard.

This was a far different world than the one Native Americans had inhabited for more than 16,000 years, or the one the first European settlers had found when they arrived in the seventeenth century. When King Charles II granted William Penn his North American colony in 1681, the province was covered with trees. Pennsylvania lies in the middle of the transitional zone between the great northern and southern forests of eastern North America. In Pennsylvania the mixed hardwoods of the southern forests &ndash the broadleaf oak, hickory, chestnut and walnut &ndash merged into mixed softwood and hardwood forests of the north &ndash the great white pine, hemlock, sugar maple, beech and birch.

In Pennsylvania the winters were colder and the summers hotter than in England, but compared to much of the world it was still a mild climate, shaped by winds that swept east across the continent. The weather could vary tremendously, depending upon elevation and region - as anyone who has driven across the state in winter can testify. The abundant rainfall made the forests grow lush. This would be a boon to farmers, who found the rich soils of the coastal plains of the southeast, the limestone valleys of the lower Susquehanna, and the shores of Lake Erie to be ideal for agriculture. For a while Pennsylvania was the leading grain-producing state in the Union. Farmers in later generations, however, were dismayed that the soil in the rest of the state was better suited to growing trees than wheat or corn.

The plentiful rainfall also gave life to 83,000 miles of rivers and streams that channeled the abundant fresh waters back to the oceans in three great drainage systems: by way of the Allegheny to the Gulf of Mexico, and by way of the Delaware and Susquehanna to the Atlantic. The vast forests of Pennsylvania also made travel difficult. Trees 100 to 150 feet tall shut out the daylight and covered an understory littered with decaying logs, vines and shrubs that made passage nearly impossible. For the colonists, as for the Indians before them, the waterways were the major highways through the forests. They were also a source of sustenance, for they contained within them an abundance and variety of fish unseen in Europe for a thousand years.

Pennsylvania's forests, waters and meadows were home to a wide variety of plants, insects and animals. European settlers were astonished and thrilled by the abundance and size of the deer, elk and beaver, the sturgeon, shad and trout. They hunted them all with a relish and greed that would bring these and other species to the brink of extinction within 200 years. Not all the forest's inhabitants were so desirable. Wolves and panthers roamed Penn's woods, and as an explorer in the Allegheny would recount, the province was filled with "stinging flies and diverse other insects but particularly Muskeetose in this country are like to rival the Seven Plagues of Egypt."

Endless trees, rich soils and abundant wildlife were not all that Pennsylvania offered. Beneath the canopy of trees, Pennsylvania contained vast deposits of coal, iron, natural gas, slate, clay, sandstone, limestone and sand. Slimy ooze called "Seneca oil" would make Pennsylvania the birthplace of the American oil industry and, for a while, the greatest producer and exporter of oil in the world. As Schultz explained, it was the great bounty of nature that made Pennsylvania a cradle of American industry and an economic powerhouse.

In the nineteenth century, Pennsylvanians cut, mined, quarried, hunted, harvested and in others ways extracted nature's bounty with unrelenting enthusiasm and voraciousness. By the end of the century, polluted waterways, denuded landscapes, impoverished soils, extinct and disappearing plant and animal life and foul air motivated many to embrace new conservation and preservation ethics that they hoped would restore the state's vanished bounty.

To protect its natural resources and public health, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania passed a broad network of laws to restrict the pollution of its waters and air, protect wildlife and regulate extraction of natural resources. It established fish, game and forest commissions to conserve and manage its invaluable resources for future generations. In the twentieth century it acquired more than four million acres of land and established twenty state forests for timber conservation, plant and wildlife preservation, and recreation.

Pennsylvanians played major roles in the national resource conservation, wilderness preservation and environmental protection movements of the twentieth century. As Pennsylvania moved from an extractive and industrial to a mixed economy, parts of the forests, water, air and wildlife rebounded.

But in the twentieth century, old challenges endured and new threats emerged, both natural and man-made. Chestnut blight, gypsy moths and hungry deer attacked Penn's woods. Leaded gasoline, acid rain, DDT, PCBs and other environmental carcinogens polluted the water and the air, wreaking havoc on creatures great and small. Suburban sprawl tore up and paved over some of the world's richest soils as extractive industries, developers, conservationists, preservationists and others continued their struggle over the meaning and the use of nature's bounty.


Leaded Gas Was a Known Poison the Day It Was Invented

For most of the mid-twentieth century, lead gasoline was considered normal. It wasn’t: lead is a poison, and burning it had dire consequences. But how did it get into gasoline in the first place?

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The answer goes back to this day in 1921, when General Motors engineer named Thomas Midgley Jr. told his boss Charles Kettering that he’d discovered a new additive which worked to reduce the “knocking” in car engines. That additive: tetraethyl lead, also called TEL or lead tetraethyl, a highly toxic compound that was discovered in 1854. His discovery continues to have impact that reaches far beyond car owners.

Kettering himself had designed the self-starter a decade before, wrote James Lincoln Kitman for The Nation in 2000, and the knocking was a problem he couldn’t wait to solve. It made cars less efficient and more intimidating to consumers because of the loud noise. But there were other effective anti-knock agents. Kitman writes that Midgley himself said he tried any substance he could find in the search for an antiknock, “from melted butter and camphor to ethyl acetate and aluminum chloride.” The most compelling option was actually ethanol.

But from the perspective of GM, Kitman wrote, ethanol wasn’t an option. It couldn’t be patented and GM couldn’t control its production. And oil companies like Du Pont "hated it," he wrote, perceiving it to be a threat to their control of the internal combustion engine.

TEL filled the same technical function as ethanol, he wrote: it reduced knock by raising the fuel's combustability, what would come to be known as "octane." Unlike ethanol, though, it couldn't be potentially used as a replacement for gasoline, as it had been in some early cars. The drawback: it was a known poison, described in 1922 by a Du Pont executive as "a colorless liquid of sweetish odor, very poisonous if absorbed through the skin, resulting in lead poisoning almost immediately." That statement is important, Kitman wrote: later, major players would deny they knew TEL to be so poisonous.

So in February 1923, a filling station sold the first tank of leaded gasoline. Midgley wasn’t there: he was in bed with severe lead poisoning, writes History.com. The next year, there was serious backlash against leaded gasoline after five workers died from TEL exposure at the Standard Oil Refinery in New Jersey, writes Deborah Blum for Wired, but still, the gasoline went into general sale later that decade. In 1926, she writes, a public health service report concluded there was “no reason to prohibit the sale of leaded gasoline” so long as workers were protected when they made it. Blum continues:

The task force did look briefly at risks associated with every day exposure by drivers, automobile attendants, gas station operators, and found that it was minimal. The researchers had indeed found lead residues in dusty corners of garages. In addition,  all the drivers tested showed trace amounts of lead in their blood. But a low level of lead could be tolerated, the scientists announced.

That report acknowledged that exposure levels might rise over time. “But, of course, that would be another generation’s problem,” she writes. Those early actions set a precedent that was hard to undo: it wouldn’t be until the mid-1970s that a growing body of evidence about the dangers of leaded gasoline lead the EPA to enter into a years-long legal struggle with gasoline-makers over phasing out leaded gasoline.

The effects of so much lead being burned and forced into the air are still being felt in the United States and other countries where leaded gasoline was—or still is—used.

“Chidren are the first and worst victims of leaded gas because of their immaturity, they are most susceptible to systemic and neurological injury,” wrote Kitman. Research has shown that lead exposure in children is linked to "a whole raft of complications later in life," writes Kevin Drum for Mother Jones, among them lower IQ, hyperactivity, behavioral problems and learning disabilities. A significant body of research links lead exposure in children to violent crime, he writes. Much of that lead is still around in environments that were contaminated by gasoline fumes during the era of unleaded. It's a problem that can't be left for another generation, Drum writes.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance science and culture journalist based in Toronto.


Timeline: game-changing gas discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean

Massive gas discoveries in the Mediterranean Sea’s Levant Basin have attracted a flood of investment – and no shortage of geopolitical tension. This timeline brings together some of the most important milestones in the development of offshore gas projects in the eastern Mediterranean.

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Unlike the Gulf of Mexico or the North Sea, the Mediterranean Sea has always been better known for stunning climate, cuisine and a booming tourism trade than offshore oil and gas. But as ‘easy oil’ becomes an increasingly rare prospect and as productivity in mature regions such as the North Sea continues to decline, exploration firms are pushing their search for hydrocarbons into deeper waters and in territories that previously hadn’t been considered. In that context, oil and gas resources in the Mediterranean have become more attractive in the last decade, pulling in investment like never before.

“Oil companies have taken great risk, and at great expense, venturing into the deep waters of the south Atlantic and east Africa over the last several years to test unproven plays, with mixed results,” Energean Oil & Gas business development manager Hank David in 2014, extolling the virtues of the Adriatic Sea in particular. “Here is an area of political stability, in the heart of the European market, with abundant new acreage availability.”

While several Mediterranean offshore regions are attracting explorers, it is in the east that some of the biggest hydrocarbon discoveries of the last decade have been made. Huge gas finds in Israeli, Cypriot and Egyptian waters have seen industry eyes swivel to the Levant Basin in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, which, according to a 2010 estimate by the US Geological Survey, could hold as much as 122 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of natural gas in total, equivalent to the reserves of Iraq.

But as much as these discoveries have driven speculation on how gas markets might be changed and what export and energy benefits might accrue for the countries involved, they have also fuelled territorial tension that has, at times, threatened to destabilise a region already riven by conflict.

This timeline brings together some of the most important milestones in the development of offshore gas projects in the eastern Mediterranean.

January 2009: Tamar discovery kicks off gas rush

The discovery of gas at the Tamar field, located in Israeli waters 90km west of the port city of Haifa, brought a new scale to the oil and gas industry in the eastern Mediterranean. The field’s reserve estimates were raised from 3.1tcf before drilling to 5tcf after flow testing of the first appraisal well in February 2009, and then revised up again to 6.3tcf after the second appraisal well was drilled. By the time the field entered full production in 2013, reserves were estimated at 10tcf.

The largest-ever gas find in the eastern Med to that point was also the largest discovery made by operator Noble Energy, which led the project alongside a consortium of Israeli partners, and a new energy dawn for Israel, whose only previous source of offshore gas production was the shallow-water Mari-B field (also operated by Noble Energy). According to Noble, Tamar today supplies 60% of Israeli power generation, underlining the stakes involved in developing hydrocarbons in the region.

August 2010: Lebanon drops Tamar/Leviathan claim, but tension remains

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Territorial disagreements have existed in the eastern Mediterranean for decades, but the gas discoveries at the Tamar and, subsequently, Leviathan fields, has brought them into focus. Israel and Lebanon, in particular, have exchanged sharp words over maritime sovereignty issues.

In August 2010, Lebanon submitted a proposal for the maritime border with Israel, endorsed by the US, which excluded the Tamar and promising Leviathan developments, despite having previously argued that around 30% of the field lay in its territory. That defused the potential for an immediate flare-up between the two countries, but tension remains to this day, with Israel contending earlier this year that an offshore area targeted for exploration by Lebanon falls inside its borders, a move that Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri described as “a new attack on Lebanon’s sovereignty”.

December 2010: Leviathan trumps Tamar

As significant as the Tamar find was, it was dwarfed by the subsequent discovery at the Leviathan gas field, 29km south-west of Tamar, less than two years later. According to Noble Energy, which once again spearheaded the exploration and now leads the team developing the project, the field contains 22tcf of recoverable natural gas.

Development of the discovery is ongoing, with the first gas deliveries expected by the end of 2019. Noble has adopted a phased approach for the project’s development, with the first phase set to include four subsea wells, each capable of flowing upwards of 300 million cubic feet per day of gas.

December 2010: Israel and Cyprus agree maritime border

While tensions flared with Lebanon over hydrocarbons in the Levant Basin, by the end of 2010 Israel had hammered out an accord demarcating maritime borders with Cyprus. The deal had naval security implications, and set an official separation of Cypriot and Israeli hydrocarbon reserves Cyprus had already done the same with Egypt and Lebanon in 2003 and 2007, respectively.

Turkey was less pleased with the agreement, considering Cyprus’s border agreements invalid due to the unacknowledged claims of the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is recognised only by Turkey.

December 2011: Cyprus joins the club with Aphrodite discovery

Despite the strong words from Turkey, the maritime border agreement with Israel paved the way for Cyprus to press on with a drilling programme at the Aphrodite gas field in block 12 of its exploratory drilling zone, which it had licenced to – you guessed it – Noble Energy in 2008.

Drilling at block 12 began in September 2011, without incident or provocation from Turkey, and Noble announced the discovery in December of the same year. With an estimated gas reserve of 4.2tcf, the Aphrodite field completed the exploration hat-trick that has earned the company its leading position in the eastern Mediterranean. The company says it is still working with the Cypriot government on a final field development plan, but the most recent proposal, according to Israeli stakeholder Delek Drilling, involves five initial production wells with a combined output of up to 800 million cubic feet per day.

August 2015: Eni’s record-breaking Zohr find

Italian supermajor Eni made huge waves in 2015 with a record-breaking discovery at Zohr field in block 9 of 15 exploration zones that Egypt put up for tender in 2012. With more than 30tcf of potential gas resources, Zohr is thought to be significantly larger than Leviathan and now holds the title of the largest-ever gas discovery in the Mediterranean.

If Zohr’s potential reserves are realised, it will almost double Egypt’s gas reserves and serve as an important lynchpin for the country’s economy and energy system. Egyptian gas production has fluctuated in recent years due to political instability and flagging upstream investment, dipping from net exporter to net importer while domestic energy demand has continued to climb year-on-year. Zohr should bolster the country’s energy security and help entice further offshore investment. Eni reached a final investment decision on Zohr in February 2016, and production from the project’s first phase will start from the end of 2017, Eni has said.

December 2016: Total, Eni, BP ink Egypt exploration deals

December 2016 brought a testament to the Zohr discovery’s ability – along with other discoveries in the West Nile Delta – to draw further investment offshore, with three separate exploration agreements signed between Egypt and Total, BP and a subsidiary of Eni, worth a total of $220m.

All three of these oil giants have looked to expand their presence in the eastern Mediterranean since the Zohr discovery. “In 2016-17 we’re investing more money in Egypt than any country in the world,” said BP chief executive Bob Dudley in February, after BP acquired a 10% stake in the Zohr field from Eni.

February 2017: Noble approves Leviathan Phase I plan

In February this year, nearly seven years after making the discovery Noble Energy approved the $3.75bn first phase of the Leviathan development project. Volatile energy prices, regulatory reform in Israel and drilling issues made the road to a final investment decision a long one for the scheme, which is being reported as Israel’s largest-ever infrastructure project.

The first phase will bring four production wells online, and also involves the construction of subsea pipes to carry the gas, via a processing platform to Israeli and Jordanian customers. Exploratory drilling also continues. Further phases of the project will see Leviathan’s gas transported and sold further afield, with customers being sought in Turkey and Europe.

October 2017: Lebanon completes first offshore licencing round

Lebanon’s long-delayed attempt to get started on exploratory drilling of its own finally came to fruition in January, when a tender for exploration rights was re-launched. That tendering process ended in October, with a consortium comprising Eni, Total and Russian gas firm Novatek the only bidder. The partners offered bids on two blocks.

The fruits of the licencing round were thrown into doubt in early November when Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri announced his resignation, sparking a political crisis that, at the time of writing, has not been resolved despite Hariri recently agreeing to put his resignation on hold to allow for consultation. Several days after the announcement of the PM’s resignation, Energy and Water Minister Cesar Abi Khalil urged bidding companies to continue technical discussions, in spite of the disruption.