Amid a multitude of accents and languages buzzing around a downtown convention hall this week, the ongoing story was of a world trying to catch up with America’s recent breakthroughs in oil and gas drilling.
They were from Europe, Asia, Australia, the Middle East and throughout the Americas, and all of them were trying to learn how to get in on the shale boom.
More than half of the roughly 250 people attending the World Shale Oil & Gas Summit at the George R. Brown Convention Center came from outside of the United States.
And whether they were gauging the feasibility of shale drilling in their countries or were studying how their companies could benefit from it, all were interested in how the United States had made it work.
They also urged American companies to bring their expertise elsewhere.
Representatives from nations including Argentina, China and Ukraine spoke about the wealth of shale oil and gas resources that their countries could reap through partnerships with American businesses that know how to do it.
Attendees said they were considering investments in plants that could benefit from the natural gas boom, or were contemplating direct involvement in shale drilling.
But executives bemoaned the dearth of workers well-versed in shale operations, which use hydraulic fracturing and other advanced technology to get to once-inaccessible oil and gas. Fracturing is a process of blasting water, sand and chemicals into dense underground rock formations to release hydrocarbons.
“Every single company, every single operator in the international environment wants American experience and we simply don’t have enough people,” said Peter Richter, vice president of marketing and technical operations for Schlumberger’s unconventional resources division. “We have to get more efficient.”
Other countries that are trying to push forward with shale oil and gas development are having trouble retaining even their own workers whom they help to get training in the United States, said Saleh M. Saleh, chief explorationist for Saudi Aramco’s unconventional gas exploration division.
“Everybody’s trying to hire and it’s very tough to find people,” Saleh said.
Joseph Figueiredo, program manager for the U.S. State Department’s Office of Energy Programs, said the government meets frequently with delegations from around the world interested in shale drilling.
The department organizes meetings with experts, companies and even with constituencies “not necessarily supportive” of fracturing, Figueiredo said.
“It’s usually a really interesting conversation,” he said.
Conference speakers repeatedly mentioned environmental interests’ resistance to fracturing that has emerged in the U.S. and likely would come up in other countries too – particularly related to use, movement and contamination of water, possibly through inappropriate disposal of waste drilling fluids.
Injection of waste fluids into deep wells also carries some risk of triggering localized earthquakes, said David Dillon, a consulting engineer who participated in a National Academy of Sciences study on the issue.
The hydraulic fracturing process itself is only known to have caused one earthquake, a small one last year in England that was largely unnoticeable, Dillon said. But wastewater wells involving large quantities of fluids have caused noticeable earthquakes below magnitudes of 5.0, he said.
The earthquakes occur when the fracturing liquids interfere with existing fluids in active faults, Dillon said.