The Greatest Story Never Told: Technology, Innovation, and American Oil & Gas
Technological advances in the oilfield are helping the United States reach new heights in oil and gas production, improving American energy security and driving growth in energy exports.
Over the past century, a stunning series of technological advances have transformed the oil and gas industry. While numerous innovations have influenced American production, a handful of key technologies have had an outsized impact, culminating in the United States becoming the world’s largest oil and gas producer.
The history of hydraulic fracturing innovation stretches back over 80 years.
Although the fracking techniques most commonly used today became widely known in the 1990s, the first attempt to apply fracturing technology was fifty years prior, in the 1940s. In 1947, a company experimentally applied the process – termed “Hydrafrac” – to a well in the Hugoton Field of southwest Kansas.
Technologies like downhole cameras, advanced drill bits, and new software made the evolution of horizontal drilling possible.
Downhole cameras enabled operators to see what was happening underground as they drill, elevating engineers’ insight and understanding of the rock they were navigating. In recent years, the growth in computational power and software have also allowed geologists to accurately map planned drill paths. Additionally, single well pads become immensely more productive, as one well pad can house several highly productive horizontal wells.
Innovators have developed impressive means to recycle produced water from oil and gas operations.
The latest recycling technologies are even converting highly saline produced water into fresh water. One water recycling company in West Texas, for example, has a zero-discharge facility that can recover over 99.7 percent of produced water. These recycling technologies help reduce the use of freshwater resources for fracking. In 2018, 90 percent of water used by Apache Corp. in its Alpine High operations was recycled or non-potable, while EOG Resources sourced 63 percent of its companywide water needs in 2018 from reuse and non-fresh sources.
The oil and gas industry is a pioneer in use of supercomputers.
Dating back to at least the 1980s, the oil and gas sector has turned to supercomputers to crunch vast amounts of data. More recently, major producers have unveiled some of the fastest supercomputers on earth, such as BP’s Center for High-Performance Computing in Houston, Tex., or Eni’s HPC4 supercomputer in Milan, Italy, which can process 100,000 reservoir models in just over 15 hours.
Science, not science fiction: cutting edge technology is ubiquitous in the oilfield, including artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and robots.
From “smart PIGs” and robotic tank inspectors, to gas cloud imaging, drones, machine learning, and real-time communication across equipment through the Internet of Things, oil and gas operators are more “silicon valley” than some would think. Using these technologies, operators are able to increase production efficiency, mitigate emissions, better predict equipment malfunction and more accurately determine where resources are located. This saves time, money, and limits health and environmental risks.
Thanks to oilfield innovation over the past several decades, the United States has become a global energy powerhouse. Directional drilling, which evolved into horizontal drilling, enabled oil and gas producers to minimize surface impacts while maximizing production volumes. This feat of technology was married with hydraulic fracturing to unlock the vast U.S. shale formations and ushered in record-breaking production that has positioned the United States as a driver of the global energy market. This record-breaking development, in turn, has improved our nation’s energy security, greatly decreasing America’s reliance on foreign oil and gas while also bolstering U.S. exports.
Operators today are focused on meeting the world’s growing energy demands while also protecting the planet. A multitude of technologies continue to reduce emissions, even as production grows. This is in addition to the nearly 2.4 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions that natural gas has prevented in the U.S. since 2005. Further, energy producers are implementing new technologies and best practices to limit freshwater use, turning to recycling and reusing greater percentages of produced water in their operations.
Looking to the future, the industry will maintain its position as a technological leader, making use of powerful computing and artificial intelligence technologies, state-of-the-art sensors and imaging, and cutting-edge robotics and autonomous vehicles. Partnerships with other innovators in Silicon Valley will ensure that the oil and gas industry remains on the cutting edge of new technologies.
The story of America’s rise to global energy dominance is a story of innovation. It’s a story of using technology to turn the impossible into the possible, and then leveraging those same technologies to address environmental concerns. As the next chapters unfold in America’s energy landscape, newer technologies and processes will deliver greater resources with even less impact, all while ensuring America retains its capacity for energy dominance.