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America’s abundant unconventional oil and gas (UOG) resources, which include natural gas and oil contained in shale formations, are an important part of a balanced and sustainable national energy strategy. Although shale oil and gas has been produced in the United States for many decades, it was not considered to be a significant resource until new horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technology facilitated economic production. 

The increase in shale oil and gas production in the United States follows many years of investment and research carried out by the federal government. Between 1978 and 1992, DOE invested about $137 million in the Eastern Gas Shale Program, which helped demonstrate and commercialize many of the technologies in use today. As early as 1975, a DOE-industry joint venture drilled the first Appalachian Basin directional wells to tap shale gas. From the 1970s to the 1990s, several DOE-funded R&D technologies would optimize production of shale across the United States: directional drilling, microseismic monitoring of multi-stage hydraulic fracturing treatments, and modeling. These investments—combined with industry collaboration—made the American shale revolution possible.

Along with the increased scale of shale oil and gas development, came concerns over potential human health and environmental impacts, such issues as water quality and availability, air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, and the prospects for inducing seismic events. Research efforts at the U.S. Department of Energy in partnership with industry and universities, as well as coordination with EPA and USGS, are addressing these issues, and developing reporting and data collection tools for industry professionals, regulatory agencies, and the public to easily access information on oil and natural gas activities.

The Office of Fossil Energy (FE) is focusing on research and development that contributes to a safe and environmentally sustainable supply of natural gas. Specifically, the FE program includes efforts in the following areas:

Water Quality and Availability
Responsible recovery of unconventional oil and gas requires technologies that ensure the quality and availability of water. Investments by the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy and the National Energy Technology Laboratory have led to substantial progress in monitoring, protecting, and treating water supplies. Research projects have led to the development of new technologies that: 1) treat produced water so it can be reused, and 2) improve how wells are designed and engineered to protect water resources.

Induced Seismicity
Expanded unconventional oil and gas development has led to increased seismicity in several areas of the country, including areas where it was previously very uncommon. The primary cause of these earthquakes is large-scale wastewater injection from oil and gas production. In order to provide useful information to regulators and those who manage wastewater, the Department of Energy is funding collaborative efforts to 1) identify the risks, 2) assess the probability of occurrence and potential impact of each risk, and 3) provide strategies and technologies to help mitigate the risks. Research includes assessing the risks in different oil and gas producing regions; establishing seismic monitoring networks; developing tools for assessing seismic risk; and providing access to wastewater disposal volumes.

Methane Emissions
Unconventional oil and gas development and operations release pollutants into the atmosphere, including methane, which can impact human health, ecological resources, and the Earth’s climate. Investments by the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy and the National Energy Technology Laboratory have led to substantial progress in modeling, measuring, and assessing these pollutants to mitigate emissions. Measurement and modeling efforts have accounted for regional trends, developed advanced quantification methodologies, and concluded that emissions from unconventional gas wells are intermittent.

Subsurface Science
Unconventional oil and gas reservoirs present unique subsurface science challenges related to their low porosity and permeability, complex naturally-occurring fracture systems, and unknown or poorly understood fluid-rock and fluid-fluid interactions. To efficiently recover UOG resources through environmentally sustainable best practices, it is crucial to develop technologies that better characterize the subsurface. Investments by the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy and the National Energy Technology Laboratory have led to substantial progress in developing data and technologies that reduce the subsurface footprint and mitigate environmental impacts associated with UOG production. Joint research efforts between DOE, industry, and universities are leading to better design, monitoring, and control of fractures and stimulations. This will reduce the number of new wells needed per unit volume of oil or gas production. FE also works with the DOE-wide Subsurface Technology and Engineering Research, Development, and Demonstration (SubTER) Crosscut that aligns research being conducted related to energy production/extraction, subsurface storage of energy and CO2, and subsurface waste disposal and environmental remediation.

Footprint Reduction
Development of unconventional oil and gas must be done in responsible ways to minimize surface disturbance and impacts on the surrounding habitats. Technology-driven best practices and strategies are reducing surface footprints on well pad sites and surrounding areas. Additional assessments help mitigate surface disturbance impacts on habitats from UOG operations. More and better tools and models are required to assess trends in development intensity and to maximize well drainage and efficiency from fewer wells on smaller pads. Investments by the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy and the National Energy Technology Laboratory have led to substantial progress in addressing these issues. Tools and technologies developed are assisting with well pad siting and density decisions, identifying location-specific subsurface geologic and wellbore risks to the surface, and minimizing environmental impacts of well pad access roads.

Transportation and Storage
Transportation and storage infrastructure—the networks of pipelines, wires, storage, waterways, railroads, and other facilities—form the backbone of our energy system. Ensuring the resilience, reliability, safety, and security of transmission, storage, and distribution (TS&D) infrastructure is a national priority and vital to American competiveness, jobs, energy security, and a clean energy future. To address the challenge of an expanding and aging transportation and storage infrastructure, investments by the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy and the National Energy Technology Laboratory have helped analyze the policies, technical specifications, and logistical program structures needed to mitigate the risks associated with TS&D infrastructure. In a changing global marketplace, FE and its partners can modernize U.S. energy infrastructures that are reliable and provide energy security benefits, support fuels diversity, and reduce environmental footprints through research, demonstration, and analysis.