Sustainability key to US energy future, expert says

HOUSTON – As global energy demand rises, the United States must do a better job making its oil boom sustainable in places like the Bakken Shale, where fractured wells recover just 4 percent of the underground resource, a Rice University official said Wednesday.

Over the next several decades, the U.S. oil industry will need every molecule of oil and gas it can muster as billions of people in developing nations double global energy needs by 2050, said Charles McConnell, executive director of Energy and Environment Initiative at Rice University, at the UHY LLP Energy Symposium in Houston on Wednesday.

That means that for all the buzz about North Dakota’s gushing oil wells, he said, ultralow recovery rates from hydraulically fractured wells won’t cut it. The industry will have to spend money to develop technologies and techniques that improve how much oil each well can extract from the ground, he said.

“Sustainability is not just an environmental term: It means both environmental responsibility and economic sensibility,” said McConnell, who served two years as assistant secretary of energy at the U.S. Department of Energy during the Obama administration. In the Bakken, going “10 miles down the road to punch another hole in the ground before this one runs out is not conservation, it’s not optimization. That’s screaming for solutions.”

The domestic surge in energy production has drawn the attention of engineers from across the globe, engineers who are watching to see if U.S. oil producers “get it right,” he said.

“The miracle of fracking doesn’t sound like a miracle to me,” he said. “It’s a great story, but it’s not sustainable at 4 percent. That means the technology we’re using is early stage.”

Oil field service firms have in recent months turned their attention to developing new technologies that could enhance production rates. Subsurface software and other advances, the firms say, could give oil producers an edge in mature shale plays where drilling speed – the efficiency metric companies have focused on in recent years – will soon peak.