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Researchers seek new way to tap oil reservoir New lab seeks to unlock the black gold mine

It’s a wildcatter’s wildest dream – an 8-million-acre subsurface rock formation estimated to hold about 7 billion barrels of light, sweet crude oil. But the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale has teased – and largely spurned – the energy industry for decades.

Enter the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

It’s the new home of the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale Laboratory, a multidisciplinary consortium of geologists, petroleum engineers, geophysicists and economic development experts from UL Lafayette and four other institutions. They’ll study how to best recover the substantial bounty its namesake offers and help unlock a potential black gold mine for the communities that it touches.

In addition to UL Lafayette, the consortium includes researchers from New Mexico’s Los Alamos National Lab, the Missouri University of Science and Technology, the University of Oklahoma, and the University of Southern Mississippi.

A $9.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and several energy companies funded the lab’s creation. Industry sources ponied up $5.98 million, which was combined with $3.68 million in federal funds.

The grant, announced in January, is part of an initiative by the Energy Department’s Office of Fossil Energy to examine unconventional oil and gas plays.

The energy industry considers a play – the name it gives an area where oil and gas exists – as unconventional based on its geographic size and geological makeup.

An unconventional play might encompass thousands, even millions of acres. The Tuscaloosa Marine Shale covers 28 parishes in south and central Louisiana, and several southwestern Mississippi counties. The formation varies in depth from 500 feet to 15,000 feet – 2.9 miles – below the surface.

By contrast, conventional hydrocarbon reservoirs have more limited boundaries.

Unlike conventional oil and gas reservoirs, unconventional resources are usually trapped within formations with poor permeability, such as shale. That means the liquid is suspended and retrieving it requires nontraditional methods of extraction, such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.

The Tuscaloosa Marine Shale’s size, depth, and frequently unstable geology have made the play among the most expensive places to drill in the country.

But that doesn’t mean the industry has found the formation inhospitable or even unfruitful. Exploration in the past decade held some promise but geological challenges, combined with lower oil prices, impeded expanded, large-scale production.

Energy companies have drilled conventional wells in south and central Louisiana for years and continue to do so. The geological information they’ve collected is a valuable resource when considering unconventional plays, and the TMS Laboratory will put that data to use, as well.

Researchers plan to conduct seismic surveys in some of the areas oil and gas companies have previously scouted. One such area is a 9.7-square-mile section in East Feliciana Parish, near the Mississippi border. There, geophysicists and other researchers will use sound waves to determine how much hydrocarbon sits below the surface and how brittle rock formations are.

Both will determine whether the field is economically viable and what extraction methods companies should use.

While they chart Louisiana’s energy future, the laboratory’s researchers are watching the eye-popping successes of unconventional plays in other parts of the United States.

The Eagle Ford Shale, for example, produces about 1 million barrels a day and supports 100,000 jobs in south Texas. Exploration in the Marcellus Shale has returned nearly $1.5 billion to communities in Pennsylvania, one of four states the formation touches, since 2011.

Exploration of both plays has produced revenue streams that have been used to improve schools and infrastructure, among other projects.

This article first appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of La Louisiane, The Magazine of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

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