The Evolution and Future of Unconventional Oil Plays

Focusing on rocks, learning from others and implementing new technologies were the keys to success identified during a talk on "Evolution of Unconventional Oil Plays from Early Innovations to Future Challenges," at the DPA luncheon held during the recent AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition in Denver.

AAPG member Mark Williams, senior vice president of exploration and development at Whiting Petroleum, described his company's rise from a small, conventional oil and gas operator to one of North America's leading unconventional oil resource play independents.

Whiting's growth paralleled the rise of the unconventional resources revolution, which transformed energy markets and spurred the United States to lead the world in oil and gas production.

DPA technical chair Steven Goolsby thought the speaker and topic would be especially relevant given the Rocky Mountain setting.

"I felt unconventional plays would be at the forefront of what the industry would be interested in during their visit to Denver," he said. "Denver has offices for many of the active independents pursuing unconventional plays in the United States.

"(Whiting is) willing to spend the money needed to understand the reservoir properties of the plays, and it has resulted in the company evolving into one of the premier resource play companies in the world," Goolsby added.

"I knew Mark was instrumental in implementing this strategy," he continued, "and I asked him to explain how Whiting … grew to where they are today using applied research in geology, geophysics and engineering."

Focus on Rocks (and Technology)

Williams' story began in 1981 when the first horizontal well was drilled in the Barnett, and stretched through a 30-year span of discovery and development in the Bakken shale of North Dakota and the Niobrara in northeastern Colorado.

Image Caption

Nine representatives from the newly named Latin America and the Caribbean Region attended the AAPG House of Delegates Meeting on May 31. Front row, left to right: Kurt Bayer, Walter Sebastian Bayer, Pedro Alarcon, Patricio Marshall, Flavio Feijo, Gustavo Carstens. Back row, left to right: Curtiss Archie, Arturo Huaccho, Hans Krause. Photo courtesy of Emily Smith Llinás

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Focusing on rocks, learning from others and implementing new technologies were the keys to success identified during a talk on "Evolution of Unconventional Oil Plays from Early Innovations to Future Challenges," at the DPA luncheon held during the recent AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition in Denver.

AAPG member Mark Williams, senior vice president of exploration and development at Whiting Petroleum, described his company's rise from a small, conventional oil and gas operator to one of North America's leading unconventional oil resource play independents.

Whiting's growth paralleled the rise of the unconventional resources revolution, which transformed energy markets and spurred the United States to lead the world in oil and gas production.

DPA technical chair Steven Goolsby thought the speaker and topic would be especially relevant given the Rocky Mountain setting.

"I felt unconventional plays would be at the forefront of what the industry would be interested in during their visit to Denver," he said. "Denver has offices for many of the active independents pursuing unconventional plays in the United States.

"(Whiting is) willing to spend the money needed to understand the reservoir properties of the plays, and it has resulted in the company evolving into one of the premier resource play companies in the world," Goolsby added.

"I knew Mark was instrumental in implementing this strategy," he continued, "and I asked him to explain how Whiting … grew to where they are today using applied research in geology, geophysics and engineering."

Focus on Rocks (and Technology)

Williams' story began in 1981 when the first horizontal well was drilled in the Barnett, and stretched through a 30-year span of discovery and development in the Bakken shale of North Dakota and the Niobrara in northeastern Colorado.

Whiting's initial efforts were in the Sanish-Parshall fields, which Williams described as "the perfect unconventional trap." Key to working with the environment, he said, was understanding Middle Bakken lithology.

"In the Bakken Shale, it's all about source rocks," he said. "It's interesting to note the color change. It goes from light, where it doesn't even look like shale on the east side (Parshall side) and changes to a dark, almost black on the west side (Sanish)."

Whiting's initial successes involved using natural fractures to serve as primary conduits of fluid flow through the reservoir. After extracting the oil accessible through natural fractures, the team needed to find new ways to stimulate the rock.

Williams described how getting remaining oil from the "perfect frac sandwich" was possible through the development of drilling technology in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Innovations like customizable PVC bits and high capacity mud pumps made operations much faster and more efficient.

"It used to take us 45 to 50 days to drill a 10,000 foot well," Williams said. "Now we can drill 10,000 feet down and 10,000 feet across in less than two weeks. We did one in nine days."

Another technological breakthrough came through the scanning electron microscope (SEM), which enabled Whiting to measure pore throat diameters and determine which fracture size would be most effective.

Williams described Whiting's NanoLab, which includes a core layout facility for logging, calibration and sample selection; a SEM/Qemscan lab for detailed mineralogy studies (without point counts) and an Ion beam SEM that turns core slides into 3-D images to help technicians see and measure the scale of pore throats in the play.

The NanoLab maintained an open-door policy, allowing Whiting both to share and gain new insights into the formation.

"If anyone let us look at their Bakken core, we did a free analysis for them," he said. "That helped us increase our knowledge."

Future Challenges

Williams admitted that both he and Whiting have plenty of work to do. Current projects include using petrophysics to customize frac'ing for different areas, and working with slick water, which adds complexity to the hydraulic fracturing process.

Williams said that increasing reservoir exposure and using technology to become more efficient have become increasingly important throughout the industry downturn.

"With dropping oil prices we've really had to sharpen our pencil on how to do these frac jobs," he said.

In the future, he hopes to develop technology needed to refracture wells.

"We have not yet figured out how to refrac old wells, and that's our single biggest opportunity," he said. "It's much easier to start from the top and drill down in nine days. But it would be good to go back and revisit the horizontal wells."

Goolsby said Whiting is a great example of an independent company that has changed world oil markets already and will continue to do so in the future.

"This revolution in technology is the direct result of the foremost independent oil companies in this country funding basic research in service companies, academia, and within their own companies so that theses plays can be understood and successfully exploited," he said.

"The companies that will be successful with today's low oil and gas commodity prices will be those that continue spend the money to do the research necessary to drive their finding and development costs down to a minimum," he said.

"This basic scientific research has not only helped members of the DPA and AAPG," he added, "but it has helped bring lower energy costs to people throughout the world."

Sternbach said he greatly enjoyed Williams' talk, which "merged the best of what DPA strives to accomplish: technology and business." He said the company's focus on research and technology set the standard for future exploration.

"I thought it was remarkable that Whiting has created a culture where fundamental rock work drives decisions and they have key equipment and staff to keep them at the leading edge," he said.

"An unconventional prospect can be the size of an entire basin or sub-basin, so regional work is key. Important skill sets include increased engineering knowledge, including geo-steering and new hydraulic fracturing models. The impact to AAPG, GCS, and DPA is that we must train ourselves in these new workflows and disciplines."

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