Cincinnati- Spurred by the nation’s relentless thirst for energy, geologists are suddenly taking a fresh look at the oldest oil-producing basin in the world.
They are wondering if Mother Nature stashed a jackpot in the cellar, down deep where the rocky roots of the Appalachian Mountains spread into Ohio.
With crude oil at almost $60 a barrel and gasoline selling for more than $2 a gallon, there has been a revival of exploration.
Don’t expect to see roughnecks and wildcatters wandering the countryside in Jeeps, kicking up dust and busting into interesting rock formations with dynamite and derricks.
This time around, 17 energy companies, Ohio and five other states, the U.S. Energy Department and the Ontario Petroleum Institute have formed a rare scientific consortium.
The mission: Do two years of research visualizing just what might lie beneath the basin’s surface. Poke into the cellar’s shadows. Try to picture the tilt of rocks that snare oil and gas, the branching and jutting of the earth’s veins. Go over every scrap of data already covered by others from the rumpled hill country to the glacial plains of the Great Lakes.
Oil and natural gas in Appalachia? Don’t scoff. It’s a bet on the future, an effort to write a geological playbook showing drillers the best places to hunt for Mother Nature’s loot.
Geologists are beginning to suspect there are thick beds of untouched ocean sediment, a prime hunting ground for hydrocarbons, in strata stacked like flapjacks far below the world’s earliest oil and gas wells.
“It won’t replace Saudi Arabia, but it could be important,” said Brandon Nuttall, a petroleum geologist from Kentucky who is assigned to the project.
Nuttall, like many of the scientists in the consortium, shares a growing expectation of tremendous potential – maybe, a prolific world-class reservoir. If they do find new supplies, this could mark the beginning of a worldwide reassessment of older oil provinces.
Others already estimate that the sediments hold enough natural gas to supply the entire nation for five years, and they are prepared to raise the estimate even higher.
The trick would be getting the oil to refineries, the gas into pipelines.
If it really does exist, the reservoir could be lying at a hard-to-tap depth under the region where the Oil Age got its start in 1859.
Mostly, after a boffo beginning that made Cleveland great and the Rockefeller family unimaginably wealthy, the Appalachian basin has played a bit part on the petroleum world’s stage.
Its coalfields were the stars.
They helped fuel the factories and power the generators that lit America’s cities.
Petroleum’s big players largely moved on to spots where oil and gas were easier to find, cheaper and less risky to reach. Places like Texas, the Middle East, the North Sea, Alaska and the Gulf Coast.
The basin still produces oil and gas. But the amounts are dwarfed by those giants.
“A way to think of the basin is as a closed, big Webster’s Dictionary. In the past, we drilled down to about the letter ‘D,’ ” said Kathy J. Flaherty, a petroleum geologist with Abarta Oil & Gas Co. in Pittsburgh.
“Now, just think of what is past the letter ‘D’ in your dictionary. Geologists are starting to imagine that. If we put a hole deep enough down, who knows what we will find.”
To solve that puzzle, scientists like Flaherty aren’t thumbing through dictionaries. They are holed up in offices scouring old seismic records, studying satellite data, or tracking down gravity measurements and scrutinizing maps looking for slight dips in the land that might signal the presence of an ancient fault line where the Earth once split.
A fault, explains geologist John Hickman, creates a pathway in Earth’s crust allowing fluids to migrate. For somebody on the trail of a potential oilfield, it could be a route of least resistance.
A lot of the research is privately financed and secretive. Some is simply mind-boggling.
Marty Parris’ efforts to unravel the mysteries hidden deep underground are almost unfathomable to a non-scientist.
The University of Kentucky geologist is slicing apart microscopic crystals, then looking for trapped mini-droplets of seawater entombed eons ago when oceans sloshed across much of North America’s interior.
“When a crystal grows, it traps whatever happens to be in the way,” Parris says, explaining how the traps could offer clues to the presence of oil and natural gas. “They are the only paleo-fluids that we have a direct record to.”
Meanwhile, federal Energy Department labs are trying to invent high-tech cements that can hold a string of pipe together four miles into the ground. That would get down to the new exploration targets.
“We think still a lot of it is out there, but it’s going to be hard to get,” said Mark Baranoski, a geologist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Also intriguing to scientists is data showing that portions of Appalachia have rocks the same age, and formed by the same chemical processes, as the giant oil fields of West Texas.
Ditto for the Williston basin, a gigantic chunk of the Great Plains that stretches across Montana and North Dakota into Canada. From World War II through the 1960s, the Williston basin was a hot spot, but it eventually fell out of favor.
Its exploration revival took place in the 1970s when oil prices skyrocketed. Several large discoveries were made in deep formations nearly identical to those being looked at in Appalachia.
Deep under the Earth’s surface, and extending into Ohio’s basement, the Appalachians’ roots formed around 500 million years ago in a salty, tropical sea that teemed with primitive creatures when life first took hold on the planet.
Thick accumulations of mud, organic goo and sand settled on the bottom of the shallow sea, whose bed underlies the region where the oil industry was born 100 years ago.
An issue that has always deterred exploration at great depths is expense – a hole drilled 20,000 feet deep can cost up to $403 a foot. Half the expense occurs in the last 2,000 feet, where conditions often become extremely caustic. And there is always risk the well will come up dry.
In the United States, the Energy Department says, the median cost of drilling and equipping an energy well is $289,000. The price to go 20,000 feet: at least $6.82 million.
At that expense, the Energy Department says, the nation “has only scratched the surface” because drillers have not prospected promising deposits.
“If you don’t know you’re going to find anything, it is hard to get somebody to give you that kind of money,” said James Drahovzal, an earth scientist with the Kentucky Geological Survey. “There’s all that sedimentary rock out there we’ve not explored. There could be a world-class field out there.
“But we’re not sure. All we can say is there might be. Conditions appear favorable. So, yes, it’s hard to get $7 million, maybe $10 million. Would you do it?”
Money wasn’t a problem in the nation’s first big rush for black gold a century ago. Nearly 100,000 wells were drilled across a 260-mile-long swath of territory with Lima in northwest Ohio near its center. Most of the wells were around 1,400 feet deep, and the field produced about 600 million barrels of oil through its peak in the early 1900s.
In the industry, going deep to search for oil and gas is called looking for elephants. Geologists know Exxon tried to find one in the 1960s and 1970s.
Across West Virginia and Kentucky, Exxon drilled nearly four miles through the crust in a series of exploratory wells. No elephants. Only one well was marginally productive, and the project had other problems, too.
The sheer pressure from the weight of rocks, along with heat, at great depths is a technological challenge that often defeats oilmen. At three miles down, temperatures can reach nearly 400 degrees, and traditional cements frequently fail in the deep, hot wells.
Researchers say the U.S. Energy Department has been actively financing a program to develop a “super cement” that can take the heat, and is also backing laboratory work that is aimed at creating drill bits that can operate in high-temperature, high-pressure environments. The government is also trying to solve the problem of drilling vibrations, which often cause premature equipment breakdown in deep wells.
Right now, there is a boomlet of gas production and exploration under way around New York’s Finger Lakes region, where more than 5 billion cubic feet has been drawn from Appalachian basin rock formations that long were written off as virtually barren.
Geophysicist Richard Beardsley, who grew up in Oil City and Titusville in Pennsylvania, where the first oil wells were drilled, recently received the American Association of Petroleum Geologists’ first-ever Explorer award. Beardsley, a passionate advocate for increased exploration in the Appalachian basin, said there was plenty of gas to be found around the Finger Lakes. “When he talked, he knew what he was talking about,” the geologist’s association trade magazine reported in a story about the award.
Working in West Virginia for Triana Energy, Beardsley has become something of a legend among oilmen for insisting that the region contains untapped, deep reservoirs. He has told the world’s petroleum geologists that the coming impact of the basin “will be important to the entire nation.”
Is Beardsley right? At the moment there are no clear answers, just some intriguing ideas.