Morgantown Researchers Contributed to Shale Oil and Gas Boom

The State Journal
13 January 2012
By Pam Kasey

Like all highly technical processes, the advances that made today's shale oil and gas revolution possible are the result of hundreds of innovators building on one another's work.

Wildcatters and geologists and engineers rigged things up in the field and experimented in the laboratory.

But today's horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in particular owe a lot to work done in the 1970s in Morgantown.

The geologists working at the Bureau of Mines in Morgantown knew there was gas in the shale.

"We took cores all over the Appalachian basin, the Illinois basin and the Michigan basin," said William Overbey.

A native of War, W.Va., Overbey earned his bachelor's degree at West Virginia University, then worked for several years at the West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey. In 1963, he took a job as a research geologist at the Interior Department's Bureau of Mines, which later became the Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory.

"We were able to make some estimates on gas content,s o we knew that there was a good bit of gas tied up in the shale," Overbey recalled. "But getting it out was a problem because of its low permeability — the ability of the gas to flow to a wellbore. We knew that the secret was stimulating and being able to contact as many fractures as possible."

To fracture the shale, Overbey and his fellow researchers tried various types of explosives, he said. In the end, it was "massive hydraulic fracturing" — essentially the same technology in use today, Overbey said — that did the trick.

But to really make use of hydraulic fracturing, they needed to drill wells horizontally into the layers of rock.

"I wrote the first paper suggesting horizontal drilling in 1967," Overbey said. "It was a Society of Petroleum Engineers paper."

Horizontal drilling was already taking place, he said, but it was being done in loose material in the Gulf of Mexico. In hard rock, directional drilling wasn't getting to a greater angle than 45 degrees.

He and his colleagues figured out how to drill horizontally in a coal bed in Wetzel County and later drilled three more horizontal wells in southern West Virginia.

"We spent, I don't know, 10 to 15 years working on the shale," he said.

Overbey and other U.S. government researchers in Morgantown — George Fasching, Charles Komar, Joseph Pasini and Lowell Shuck — are credited as inventors on numerous patents in the 1970s.

Their innovations in drilling and fracturing are recognized through patents related to measuring the permeability of a rock sample in 1972; to the underground gasification of coal with horizontal drilling, the removal of methane from coal beds, laser drilling and mapping induced fractures in 1976; to selectively orienting fractures created hydraulically, to testing rock core samples, to describing fractures and to determining permeability of earth formations, all in 1977.

But the key, Overbey said, was passing the developments on to industry.

Overbey himself moved on in 1980 to a job with the engineering firm BDM International, which then worked under contract to the Department of Energy to drill horizontal wells. At BDM, he and colleagues were able to further develop horizontal drilling techniques, he said.

The DOE and BDM worked with George Mitchell, a Texas businessman who is widely recognized for his work to advance horizontal drilling, and other companies to further develop the technologies in the field, Overbey said.

If the Morgantown researchers hadn't come up with the innovations they did, Overbey feels sure that someone else would have.

But he's surprised at the success of it all.

"We had no idea that it would become as common as it is," he said. "It's the best method for recovery of gas and oil, all over the world."

If Overbey were still researching, two subjects intrigue him.

"There's a need now for research that would allow us to retrofit the old coal-fired power plants and make natural gas the fuel, because it puts less carbon into the atmosphere," he said.

He would also like to work on "the conversion of microwave energy into electric power," he said. "You have to have a large dish to capture it and then you do a conversion. I think in 30 to 40 years, we'll be doing that."