Since the first commercial oil well was drilled in the United States in 1859, most of the nation’s oil and natural gas has come from reservoirs from which the resources are relatively easy to extract. As these “conventional” reservoirs become harder to find, however, we are turning to oil and natural gas in shale or other less-permeable geologic formations, which do not readily release the hydrocarbons. These “unconventional” reservoirs require additional engineering measures, such as hydraulic fracturing, to improve reservoir quality and enable them to produce oil and gas at commercially viable rates.

The United States’ abundant unconventional oil and natural gas resources represent a fast-growing component of its energy portfolio. The Energy Information Administration reports that, over the past decade, U.S. production of tight oil and shale gas — two unconventional resources — has increased 9 fold and 18 fold, respectively. Accessing these hard-to-extract resources helps secure our nation’s energy supply, while benefitting our economy. Technology that can improve their extraction with minimal environmental impact is imperative.

The Office of Fossil Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) has an unconventional oil and gas program devoted to research in this important area of energy development. The laboratory partners with industry and academia through cost-sharing agreements to develop scientific knowledge and advance technologies that can improve the environmental performance of unconventional resource development. Once the resulting technologies are deployed for commercial use, our nation stands to reap huge benefits.

NETL’s already-rich portfolio of oil and gas research gained seven new projects last fall through an NETL solicitation. All of these projects hold promise to improve extraction of unconventional resources while protecting the environment.