Unconventional gas sources: lessons from established markets

Tuesday’s opening panel session on new frontier challenges focused squarely on gas. Could the experiences of the North American market in developing tight gas and shale gas reserves be replicated in the Middle East? Robert Gales, vice president Geo Science at Weatherford, believes that many unconventional resources  exist and are technically viable; in fact, estimates of availability continue to rise.  This however, makes it essential that there is thorough collating of good information early in the exploration process to justify going ahead.

Kammel Bennaceur, Schlumberger chief economist, agreed. As he said, “We cannot replicate a design methodology from one shale to another.” Which is probably why the presentation of D Nathan Meehan, vice president reservoir technology and consulting, Baker Hughes, was underpinned, as many of the presentations were, with complex slides emphasising the role of geology, geophysics, mineralogy, mechanical engineering and other disciplines, accompanied by the warning that of any two apparently similar wells, one could in fact produce many times as much gas as another.

But the hurdles aren’t just technological. Mark J Nolan vice president, Middle East/Russia of ExxonMobil, emphasized the need not just for technology (through innovations like ExxonMobil’s EMPower simulator) but visionary leadership.

Bennaceur, meanwhile, highlighted five enabling factors that boosted the market in North America: technology development, the availability of a service sector, favourable economics, an entrepreneurial spirit and a regulatory framework. But “xeroxing” the American experience, is not necessarily going to happen; differing geological circumstances and the need for large amounts of water are just two considerations that could seriously impact the Middle East market. However, Nolan estimated that the world uses 15 billion BTUs of energy every second and with population and GDP growth expanding, a move to unconventional resources is going to be essential.

In the end, two major points, one encouraging and one challenging, seemed to emerge from the presentations overall. The former was Nolan’s remark that “notions of conventional and unconventional are evolving”. The other, from final speaker Jonathan Evans, general manager with BP, in his discussion of tight gas was the point that it was high gas prices that stimulated development of unconventional resources of gas in North America. In the Middle East, by contrast, prices are often controlled. “This may need to change,” he said, “to allow development of unconventional resources.”  Development of unconventional sources of gas in the region may therefore be as much a function of economics as of technology.


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