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New research project digs into mechanics of Permian geology

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The outcrop of rocks that ring the Permian Basin tell the story of the area’s formation and deposition of its crude and natural gas riches with every fold, fracture and fault.

A new research project, the Permian Basin Joint Industry Project, a  venture between San Antonio-based Southwest Research Institute and area producers, aims to take information gleaned from those outcrops and develop information producers can use in planning drilling programs.

David Ferrill, director in the nonprofit institute’s Geosciences and Engineering Division, said that the Permian Basin has been producing oil and natural gas for almost a century, and conventional wisdom is that a producer could punch a hole almost anywhere in the basin and find oil.

“The current emphasis on the Wolfcamp Shale and tight shale sources, resource rock” challenge that wisdom, he said as he was preparing to head to Alberta, Canada, to discuss the project at the American Associatio of Petroleum Geologists’ annual convention.

He said that emphasis has producers working to maximize efficiency and production by establishing an industrial or factory approach to drilling and completing the wells.

“For that to work well, you have to have an optimized approach. The problem is, each shale play behaves differently,” Ferrill said.

An optimized approach must take into account the mechanical stratigraphic and structural geology, natural faults and deformation features and stress conditions under the surface, he said.

Ferrill said there is an overly simplistic view of the Permian Basin’s characteristics. On the surface it looks flat and simple, but that view is not supported by the tale told by the rocks deposited during its formation, he said.

Last year Ferrill’s division received internal funding from the institute to send researchers to study outcrops in the Permian, part of what he calls a seed project to collect initial data “to illustrate what we want to accomplish.”

Researchers “looked at all the outcrops around the fringe of the Permian Basin and found distinct deformations around the area,” he said. Researchers were even able to gain rare access to some ranches to view outcrops in the Guadalupe and even the Glass mountains.

Ferrill explained that studying the mechanics, the natural faults and stress conditions in the outcrops provides the researchers data that can then be translated into siting future oil wells. Outcrops give visibility to the complexity under the surface, he said.

“Companies spend millions of dollars on each well. For a small fraction of that cost, we can glean a huge amount of information from the outcrops. Outcrop scale really is equal to the scale of the area they will be fracturing and producing from. The wellbore is the access point,” Ferrill said.

If a horizontal lateral is off by, say tens of degrees, that lateral might end up being drilled twice as long as necessary, at greater cost to the producer, and be less productive, he said. The information could even alter the direction the lateral is drilled, he said.

“Even though it’s flat, the Permian has felt the stress of the mountain creation, and those stresses come though. Companies will be successful if they understand that and take advantage of that understanding,” Ferrill said.

Now that the seed project has been completed, the project is receiving verbal commitments from Permian producers who will sign on to the project, contribute funding and provide data for analysis. Members will receive regional maps containing fractures, faults and folds and the tectonic framework that can be important to well planning and performance. They will be tailored to the needs of the member companies, Ferrill said.

“Everyone we’ve talked to has shown strong interest,” he said.

The institute has experience with similar joint projects, launching one in the Eagle Ford in 2011. The institute is launching another effort to study the Austin Chalk, which overlies the Eagle Ford in parts of South and Central Texas and Mexico.

Ferrill described the Permian’s Wolfcamp Shale alone has been described as “eight or 10 Eagle Fords stacked on top of each other,” with shale units found in sections that can be up to 2,000 feet thick.


Tags: crudenatural gasoil


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