The Father of the Barnett
A unique set of factors converged to kick off the Barnett boom. New technologies such as artificial fracturing and horizontal drilling made it possible to extract large amounts of gas from shales. The relatively high price of gas in recent years made it economically viable.
Yet according to Eric Potter, neither of these would have mattered without one critical element:
“It wasn’t high tech. It was persistence and experimentation on the part of one company that got this boom going.”
Mitchell Energy had produced gas from a shallower formation, the same formation that John Jackson had discovered in the 1950s. That production was waning.
“They began looking around for what could be done in the same area,” says Potter. “They had always noticed that when you drilled through the Barnett, you would get a gas show. But everyone thought you wouldn’t get much gas.”
Even though shale may have a lot of pores with the ability to store gas, it is not very permeable. In other words, it does not have many connections between the pores and so trapped oil and gas can not flow easily.
“Mitchell Energy sunk a lot of money over a long period into learning how to stimulate the rock so it would flow,” says Potter. Their first attempts were expensive “massive hydraulic frac jobs.” They would pump a very large volume of fluid and sand down a well bore to crack the rock and give it more permeability. At first, they got the gas flowing, but the methods and materials were expensive. So they wondered if they could pump less fluid and get the same effect.
“They arrived at something called a light sand frac,” says Potter. “Suddenly it was economical and at the same time—in the mid-1990s—the price of gas was rising. By the late 1990s, they had perfected the technique in vertical wells and started applying it to several hundred wells. That’s when it came to the attention of industry.”
Potter first heard about these early successes from a Mitchell employee in 1996.
“I didn’t think it would have the kind of impact it did,” he says. “I wasn’t the only one. Most people in industry were surprised and had difficulty adjusting to the notion that shale could produce in commercial amounts over such a wide area. There were only a few companies that appreciated the value of hydraulic fracture technology applied on such a large scale.”
When thermally-mature organic-rich mudstone is drilled into, the pressure drops and gas is released by a process called desorption. Early estimates of how much gas would be given up by the Barnett Shale turned out to be far too low. The experiments were run again and it was realized that this shale would give up much more gas than was previously thought.
“Then it was realized, oh, if you scale that up to the whole area and then to the whole county and up to the whole Basin, the amounts of gas are really quite prodigious,” says Potter. “People became aware of that in 2002 and 2003 and that really got the ball rolling.”
Mitchell Energy already had critical infrastructure in place to process and transport gas. So they could quickly and economically take advantage of the discovery.
“It took George Mitchell 18 years to make it work,” notes Larry Brogdon, partner and chief geologist for Four Sevens Oil Company. “He is the father of the Barnett Shale. He was tenacious. He started in 1981 and it really didn’t take off until 1999. And even then, it took a long time to develop it.”
by Marc Airhart