Guest opinion: Drilling IT benefits economy, environment

2014-06-16T00:00:00Z Guest opinion: Drilling IT benefits economy, environmentBy DAVID L. TYLER The Billings Gazette
June 16, 2014 12:00 am  • 

Credit for the continuing success of America’s shale oil and gas boom goes primarily to new technology and new applications of existing technology.

The great economic gains resulting from hydraulic fracturing in the Bakken and other shale formations are largely due to the use of information technology of the kind that put Silicon Valley on the map. That’s the untold story of the shale revolution – the use of massive data flows from seismic imaging and micro-seismic monitoring of the fracturing process that enables energy companies to know where to drill and how to get the oil and gas out.

Top gas, oil producer

Over the past six years, the productivity of the typical oil and gas rig in America’s shale formations has increased more than 200 percent, making the U.S. the world’s biggest producer of natural gas and soon to be the No. 1 producer of crude oil. One of the things responsible for that success is computer processing power, which has changed the nature of energy production.

Seismic imaging is about navigation. Instead of drilling blind and coming up with dry holes (or, worse, sub-commercial producing wells), energy companies are now able to image the subterranean rock with great precision using sound waves. Steerable drills packed with software and down-hole sensors tell companies where to place a drill thousands of feet underground, and micro-seismic monitoring is constantly making the fracturing process more effective. These developments are driving down the cost of drilling and redefining the energy landscape.

We are seeing a remarkable gain in energy yielded per dollar of capital. It explains why U.S. oil production is changing the global energy calculus and why energy independence is no longer a pipedream. Innovative use of information technology has helped to create these possibilities. Oil and gas production show no sign of slowing down. The United States now has more than 100 years’ worth of natural gas, and since 2008 the domestic output of crude oil has increased more than 60 percent.

This has driven a comeback in manufacturing, giving a critical edge to chemicals, steel and automobiles. The boom in unconventional oil-and-gas production has created thousands of well-paying jobs in Pennsylvania and Ohio, not to mention North Dakota and Texas, and billions of dollars in state and local revenue nationally. Indeed, a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that 1 million manufacturing jobs could be created by 2025 as a result of low energy prices and an abundance of natural gas.

Fracking moratoriums

An abiding issue that requires resolution is the moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in a number of states, including California and New York. If they are sincere environmentalists and not simply using environmentalism as a stalking horse for other leftist causes, environmentalists should recognize the value of shale gas as part of a diverse mix of low-carbon sources that could have a tangible effect on climate in the coming decades. The increase in gas use in electricity production has helped to reduce U.S. carbon emissions to 20-year lows.

By recognizing the broad and sustained benefits of the shale revolution, thanks in large part to information technology, we can control our own energy future. And we can protect the environment for decades to come.

David L. Tyler is a petroleum geologist who lives in Billings.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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