DOE's Unconventional Gas Research Programs 1976-1995
SOURCE: U.S. Department of the Interior, Minerals Management Service, Gulf of Mexico OCS Region

1. Background

In the mid-to-late 1970s, fears that supplies of natural gas would soon run out led to the initiation of U.S. government and private efforts to better understand both the magnitude of the nation's natural gas resource and how best to find and produce it. In particular, interest focused on natural gas resources in unconventional reservoirs: low permeability formations (also called tight sands or tight gas), Devonian shales, methane-rich coal seams, and geopressurized aquifers. This gas had not been included in previous estimates of the Nation's natural gas resource base, but the likelihood that higher gas prices and new technologies might make it economic to produce led to several seminal studies that in turn became the basis for a number of government and private R&D efforts.

The first study of unconventional gas resources was completed by the Federal Power Commission in 1973. It was followed by studies published over the following seven years by the National Academy of Science (NAS) the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Department of Energy (Lewin & Associates), and the National Petroleum Council (see Appendix A for details on these documents, listed below):

  • U.S. Federal Power Commission, Task Force Report of the Supply-Technical Advisory Task Force-Natural Gas Technology, in Natural Gas Survey, Vol. 2, 1973.
  • National Academy of Sciences, Natural Gas from Unconventional Geologic Sources, 1976, Energy Research and Development Administration Report FE-2271-1.
  • Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, U.S. Department of Energy, National Gas Survey: Non-conventional Natural Gas Resources, DOE/FERC-0010, June 1978.
  • V. A. Kuuskraa, et al. (Lewin & Associates, Inc.), Enhanced Recovery of Unconventional Gas (Vols. I, II and III), October 1978, U.S. Department of Energy Publication HCP/T270S-01, 02, 03.
  • National Petroleum Council, Unconventional Gas Sources, five volumes, 1980.
The NAS study consisted of a one-day forum of experts on the topic of unconventional gas in January 1976 in Washington, D.C. Their discussions, published later that year, determined that ... "It is evident that a large quantity of methane remains in the sedimentary rocks of this country ... however, total resource figures are highly speculative and much work must be done to produce acceptable estimates. ...The level of funding devoted to investigating new sources of methane has been miniscule, with the greater part of the work dependent upon private-sector funds and motivation. ... Efforts to develop cheap, effective means for producing gas from these presently underdeveloped resources should be encouraged and imaginative ideas subsidized."1

Seeking to maximize development of all domestic energy sources, Congress authorized funding for an Unconventional Gas Research Program in FY 1976. The original program consisted of three separate resource-specific sub-programs:
    1. Eastern Gas Shales Project (EGSP) focused on Devonian-age organic shales of the eastern U.S.

    2. Western Gas Sands Project (WGSP) focused on low permeability gas sandstone reservoirs of the western U.S.

    3. Methane Recovery from Coalbeds Project (MRCP) focused on free methane associated with both mineable and unmineable coal seams.
This research was to be managed by the U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) and its Morgantown Energy Research Center (MERC).

ERDA became part of the Department of Energy (DOE), newly created in 1977, which was tasked with managing an Enhanced Gas Recovery (EGR) Program initiated by the FY 1978 Congressional Budget request.

The goal of the Program was to "develop and stimulate the deployment of advanced exploration, development and production technologies for recovering new gas supplies from the massive but complex unconventional gas resources tight gas, coalbed methane, gas shales and geopressured methane.

The technical objectives were to increase per well gas recovery efficiencies and lower unit development costs while providing incentives (through tax credits) for prompt, orderly development of the nation's gas resources.2"

In addition, the Program had two quantitative, national-level natural gas supply goals:
    1. Increase gas production by an incremental 3 Bcf per day by 1986, and

    2. Add 10 Tcf of producible reserves by 1985.

The DOE R&D program that grew out of this initial effort was funded between $20 and 30 million dollars per year from 1978 thru 1981 (See Figure 1).

Figure 1: Funding of Various DOE Unconventional Gas Programs 1977-2002. (Click to enlarge)
Figure 1: Funding of Various DOE Unconventional Gas Programs 1977-2002. (Click to enlarge)

After 1980, the Reagan Administration implemented dramatic reductions in energy R&D spending, and the level of funding for the four-year-old DOE natural gas R&D program decreased to approximately $10 million per year through the majority of the decade of the 1980s.

The three programs begun by ERDA in 1976 were continued under this effort. The work continued to be managed by researchers at the now renamed DOE Morgantown Energy Technology Center (METC). The larger portion of this funding went towards the Eastern Gas Shales Program and Western Gas Sands Program, with a much smaller amount focused on the Methane Recovery from Coalbeds Project.

Beginning in 1982 and continuing through 1992, there was also a small Methane Hydrates Program. Also, from 1982 through 1992 there was a Deep Source Gas program, and later, from about 1987 through 2000, a Secondary Gas Recovery program.

Preliminary research into the geopressured methane resource added to the understanding of the actual potential of this resource, leading to the termination of R&D in this area.

Funding for R&D related to natural gas E&P-related environmental protection technologies grew to be more than that directed towards E&P technologies themselves.

By 1992, much of the remaining DOE R&D program had been eliminated, with only a limited program related to Western Tight Sands surviving.

In 1993 the DOE R&D program transitioned from its historical focus on unconventional gas resources to a technology product orientation, emphasizing tools and methodologies for drilling, imaging, diagnostics, completion and stimulation.

From 1994 through 2005, funding for DOE R&D related to natural gas E&P has remained fairly steady in the range of $10 to $20 million per year.

1 National Academy of Sciences, Natural Gas from Unconventional Geologic Sources, 1976, Energy Research and Development Administration Report FE-2271-1.

2 Kuuskraa, V., Guthrie, H., "Translating Lessons Learned from Unconventional Natural Gas R&D to Geologic Sequestration Technology," paper presented to the 1st National Conference on Carbon Sequestration, May 2001.

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Cover Page

Executive Summary

1. Background

2. GRI Research into Unconventional Gas Resources

3. Structure of the Enhanced Gas Recovery Program (EGR)

  • 3.1. Eastern Gas Shales Program (1976-1992)

  • 3.1.1. Key Questions and Related R&D Goals
  • 3.1.2. Program Design and Overview of Major Projects
  • 3.1.3. Key Eastern Gas Shales Projects
  • 3.1.4. Highlights of Important Results
  • 3.1.5. Subsequent Developments in DOE and Other Research Related to Eastern Gas Shales

  • 3.2. Western Gas Sands Program (1978-1992)

  • 3.2.1. Key Questions and Related R&D Goals
  • 3.2.2. Program Design and Overview of Major Projects
  • 3.2.3. Key Western Gas Sands Projects
  • 3.2.4. Highlights of Important Results
  • 3.2.5. Subsequent Developments in DOE Research Related to Tight Gas Sands

  • 3.3. Methane Recovery from Coalbeds Program (1978-1982)

  • 3.3.1. Key Questions Related to Coal Seam Methane
  • 3.3.2. MRCP Program Design and Overview
  • 3.3.3. Key Methane Recovery from Coalbeds Projects
  • 3.3.4. Highlights of Important Results
  • 3.3.5. Subsequent Research Related to Methane Recovery from Coalbeds

  • 3.4. Deep Source Gas Project (1982-1992)

  • 3.4.1. Key Deep Source Gas Projects
  • 3.4.2. Highlights of Important Results

  • 3.5. Methane Hydrates Program (1982-1992)

  • 3.5.1. Methane Hydrates Workshop (March 1982)
  • 3.5.2. Key Questions and Related R&D Goals
  • 3.5.3. Program Design
  • 3.5.4. Major Contracted Gas Hydrates Projects
  • 3.5.5. Methane Hydrate Research Efforts of METC's In-House Organization
  • 3.5.6. Highlights of Important Results
  • 3.5.7. Subsequent Developments in Methane Hydrate Research

  • 3.6. Secondary Gas Recovery (1987-1995)

  • 3.6.1. Key Objectives and Program Design
  • 3.6.2. Major Projects
  • 3.6.3. Major Results

    4. Elements of Spreadsheet Bibliographies (by Program)

    Appendix A: Details of Major 1970-1980 Unconventional Gas Resource Assessments

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