The Office of Fossil Energy sponsored early research that refined more cost-effective and innovative production technologies for U.S. shale gas production -- such as directional drilling. By 2035, EIA projects that shale gas production will rise to 13.6 trillion cubic feet, representing nearly half of all U.S. natural gas production. | Image courtesy of the Office of Fossil Energy.

During his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Obama talked about the role shale gas can play in providing clean, reasonably-priced domestic energy. He also noted it was “public research dollars, over the course of 30 years that helped develop the technologies to extract all this natural gas out of shale rock -- reminding us that government support is critical in helping businesses get new energy ideas off the ground.”

Shale gas is natural gas trapped inside formations of shale -- fine grained sedimentary rocks that can be rich sources of natural gas and petroleum. It was just a few short years ago that much of this resource was considered uneconomical to produce. But American ingenuity and patient research by the Energy Department have led to dynamic breakthroughs in shale gas production.

The dollars and technology development referred to by the President are linked to research in the Department’s Office of Fossil Energy (FE). Through its National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), FE sponsored early research that industry utilized for directional drilling, which is drilling at an angle other than vertical, and hydraulic fracturing, which uses pressurized liquids to crack subsurface rock. The R&D not only refined more cost-effective and innovative production technologies, but also sophisticated data development and protective environmental practices.     

The cumulative result was that hundreds of trillions of cubic feet of gas that previously couldn’t be economically produced became recoverable. In the past five years, shale gas has been increasingly recognized as a “game changer” for the U.S. natural gas and energy markets. The proliferation of activity into new shale producing areas, or “plays,” has increased domestic dry shale gas production from 1 trillion cubic feet (tcf) in 2006 to 5 tcf in 2010 -- about 23 percent of total U.S. dry gas production. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), U.S. shale gas production has increased 12-fold over the past decade, and the estimated unproved technically recoverable resource is 482 tcf, about 19 percent of technically recoverable domestic natural gas.   

By 2035, EIA projects that shale gas production will rise to 13.6 trillion cubic feet, representing nearly half of all U.S. natural gas production. When you consider that 1 tcf of natural gas is enough to heat 15 million homes for one year, generate 100 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, or fuel 12 million natural-gas-fired vehicles for one year, the importance of this resource to the nation becomes obvious. The positive effects include: reducing the need for imported energy while enhancing U.S. energy security; creating American jobs for drilling, pipelines and production facilities; helping stabilize domestic natural gas prices; increasing royalty and tax receipts for the federal and state governments; and contributing to the U.S. becoming a net exporter of natural gas by 2021, according to EIA forecasts.  

And the story isn’t over -- building on past R&D successes, the Energy Department is developing new technologies to prudently and safely develop this valuable resource while minimizing potential environmental impacts. In the final analysis, the development of shale gas is not only a "win-win" energy, environmental, and economic story for the nation, but also a prime example of the Energy Department’s legacy of achievement and returning tangible benefits for taxpayer dollars invested.

You can learn more about the Energy Department’s shale gas research here.

Christopher A. Smith
Christopher Smith is a former Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy.Christopher Smith is a former Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy.
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