Processing Magazine

Exxon sees natural gas potential with new drilling technique

July 27, 2009
At a natural gas well site in the desert, 80 miles west of the Rocky Mountains tourism hive, workers for Exxon Mobil Corp. load cranes, operate pumps and monitor little red lines on computer screens, monitoring the ten natural gas wells located here. The work must happen simultaneously to keep the well costs low – and profit high enough – to be worth the effort of the country''s largest oil company, reports the Dallas Morning News. Randy Tolman, Exxon''s project coordinator for the Piceance Basin, invented a faster method of fracturing, or "fracing," the underground layers of rock and sand to unlock natural gas. Exxon aims to export the new process to the unconventional natural gas reserves it is accumulating around the world. Drilling for more natural gas could make Exxon a lot of money as Americans demand cleaner fuel because natural gas doesn''t emit as much pollution or greenhouse gases as oil and coal when burned. Exxon forecasts that natural gas demand will rise 50 percent by 2030 and outstrip demand for coal. At the gas well site in the desert, Exxon has drilled 10 holes, five of which already produce natural gas. The company''s rigs in the Piceance Basin don''t have to be reassembled between wells. Instead, the drill can move horizontally and laterally to reposition. This speeds the process and cuts the cost of rig crews. Operators must fracture the underground rock or sand around the well to allow more gas to flow out. In the 1980s, frac jobs could take months. Now a complicated frac typically takes a couple of weeks. Exxon''s Tolman developed a method to fracture a Piceance Basin well in three days, and he thinks he can compress it to 24 hours. The key is to conduct every activity simultaneously. Everybody thought that was impossible until Tolman persuaded his colleagues to experiment. While working on a natural gas well Tolman noticed natural gas was flowing out of the well without pushing out or damaging the wire that operators had dropped into the well. Years later Tolman had an idea. Why not use this phenomenon to perform simultaneous functions on a well? That''s exactly what he is doing at the site in Colorado. Exxon began a significant expansion here in 2007, after scientists developed drilling and fracing methods that could make the operations profitable. Exxon now operates seven rigs in the Piceance Basin and produces 100 million cubic feet a day. Project executive Branch said the company could eventually increase to 1 billion cubic feet a day. Most energy experts agree that demand for natural gas will surely rise if a bill to cut greenhouse gas emissions becomes law. The bill passed the House and awaits consideration by the Senate.