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DOE Research Turns into Low-Impact Drilling Solutions Alliance

March 2, 2009
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With much of the new administration's energy policy focused on getting the United States off its dependence on foreign oil, the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Fossil Energy said last week its three-and-a-half-year-old partnership on drilling technology research has metamorphosed into a "major new research consortium" set on promoting advanced technology for low-impact domestic oil and natural gas drilling.

Announced last month by the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) and Texas A&M University, the University/National Laboratory Alliance will fund and transfer advanced technologies to accelerate development of domestic oil and natural gas resources with minimal environmental impact.

The alliance has its roots in a project funded through the Office of Fossil Energy's Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Program. The goal of the project, which is drawing to a close, has been to identify and develop low-impact drilling systems for use in environmentally sensitive areas such as desert ecosystems and coastal margins. Among other accomplishments, the project has led to the creation of the environmentally friendly drilling (EFD) program, which will continue with support from the energy industry and other government organizations after the Office of Fossil Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) sponsorship ends on March 31. The new alliance is part of EFD.

"This is an excellent example of how the government's investment in advanced, environmentally friendly technologies to develop domestic energy resources has encouraged industry interest and leveraged the taxpayer dollar," said Victor Der, principal deputy assistant secretary for Fossil Energy. "Technology advancement is the key to simultaneously addressing issues of energy security, supply, affordability and environmental quality."

According to Rich Haut, manager of the new alliance, its goal is "to fund the development of low-impact systems that can be used in environmentally sensitive regions and share the latest research findings concerning these systems with leaders of energy, academia, environmental organizations and government...We will consider all aspects of energy resource recovery, not only traditional oil and natural gas production methods but also unconventional production, such as natural gas from shale or coalbed methane."

In addition to HARC and Texas A&M, founding members of the alliance include: Argonne National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sam Houston State University, the University of Arkansas, the University of Colorado, the University of Wyoming, Utah State University and West Virginia University.

The new alliance is an outgrowth of an NETL-supported project with Texas A&M entitled "Field Testing of Environmentally Friendly Drilling Systems." The DOE said the $2.3 million project, which started on Sept. 30 2005, has resulted in a number of other significant accomplishments.

The project has identified more than 90 specific technologies related to the footprint of oil and gas operations that, if widely commercialized and applied, could help industry achieve more than a 90% reduction in environmental impact. The project also contributed to future job growth by developing technologies to make oil and gas resources that are environmentally restricted today producible in the future.

The alliance has established an oil and gas desert test center near Pecos, TX, on the edge of the Chihuahua desert, to evaluate low-impact drilling technology in desert ecosystems such as those found in the western United States. It also established a systems approach to optimize drilling decisions and ensure that the activities selected satisfy chosen criteria; the approach has been successfully used in the EFD program to determine the optimum system for a given site.

The project also tackled the environmental problem of drilling waste by developing a small-footprint, low-impact process "based on sound engineering and biological principles" to convert wastes to a useable product.

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