3.2. Western Gas Sands Program (1978-1992)
By the late 1970s when the Western Gas Sands (WGS) R&D Program was initiated, tight
gas in the Rocky Mountain Foreland basins was a poorly understood and largely
uneconomic resource. The oil and gas E&P industry was skeptical toward the idea of
significant widespread production from these discontinuous, low-permeability
A moderate volume of gas, estimated at about 1 Tcf per year in 1976, was
being produced from the mature tight sandstone fields of the Appalachian, San Juan and
This amounted to less than 6 percent of U.S. non-associated gas
production and less than 5 percent of total gas production. In addition, the more
geologically favorable (“near tight”) portions of the Gulf Coast, East Texas, Mid-
Continent and Williston basins were producing about 360 Bcf annually. However, the
five main Rocky Mountain gas basins (Greater Green River, Wind River, Piceance,
Uinta, and Denver) that would be selected as the focus of the DOE R&D program were
producing only 162 Bcf per year from what was then a proved reserves base of only
about 2 Tcf; less than 1 percent of the nation's proven dry gas reserves at the time.
The FY 1978 Congressional Budget Request explained the justification for initiating
western gas sands R&D as part of a restructured program focusing on enhanced oil and
gas recovery. However, while the FY 1978 Enhanced Gas Recovery (EGR) budget was
80 percent higher than the previous year, much of the increase was devoted to projects
related to Eastern Gas Shales and Coalbed Methane. Western gas sands R&D benefited
from all subsequent budget increases however, and grew almost 300 percent from 1978
From 1982 through 1992 large recommended decreases in unconventional gas R&D
spending reflected the Administration position that the government should not be
involved in resource development. Although Congress generally appropriated more than
the Administration requested during this period, the WGS Program R&D budgets
In 1993 the Administration reorganized DOE's budget structure
towards a technology focus rather than a resource focus and the WGS Program
essentially disappeared as a stand-alone program. R&D focused on naturally fractured
tight reservoirs did continue, but on a more limited scale.
However, during its sixteen years the WGS Program made extremely important
contributions to our fundamental understanding of how basin-centered gas accumulations
occur and how these reservoirs can be effectively stimulated to produce gas at economic
The considerable progress that has been achieved over the past thirty years in
developing technologies for finding and producing tight gas reservoirs owes a great deal
to the basic knowledge that was developed under the WGS Program and the technology
development process that it set in motion.
In 2004, tight gas production (from all regions,
not just western basins) was just over 5 Tcf, more than 28 percent of U.S. non-associated
gas production and more than 21 percent of total gas production.
The DOE's Energy
Information Administration (EIA) currently expects tight gas production from the Rocky
Mountain basins to reach nearly 2.3 Tcf per year and overall tight gas production in the
U.S. to reach nearly 5.5 Tcf per year by 2020, a testimony to the WGS Program's early
recognition of the long term importance of this resource to the nation's energy supply.
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