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“It’s an exciting time to be working in geology in North Dakota. I’m fortunate to work here—new and complex questions come up every day, and the EERC has the equipment and expertise to answer those questions,” said Steve Smith, EERC Research Manager and Manager of the EERC’s Applied Geology Laboratory (AGL).

The AGL’s work is focused on providing critical information for answering questions related to energy research in oil and gas production and CO2 utilization and storage, much of its work evaluating oil fields, oil production methods and materials, and saline aquifers with respect to their potential for enhanced oil production and CO2sequestration.

In July, Bakken Formation oil production hit 1.1 million barrels of oil a day. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Bakken and Three Forks Formations have between 300 and 900 billion barrels (Bbbl) of oil, with 10 to 24 Bbbl technically recoverable using today’s technologies. While development of the Bakken oil and gas play is enhancing our economy and national energy security, it has challenges, but Smith said he finds the challenges to retrieving that oil both interesting and fulfilling.

Although the EERC continues to provide focused solutions in all energy areas, over the past few years, emphasis has increased on investigations related to oil and gas production and carbon capture, utilization, and storage. In that time, the Center has developed new, state-of-the-art analytical capabilities for determining key properties of rocks and materials used throughout the petroleum industry and has relied on the expertise and experience of our personnel working in existing laboratory facilities to provide additional detail.

The AGL is one of 12 laboratories at the EERC, serving various projects for the EERC as well as for outside clients. The lab is actively pursuing research into petrophysics, geochemistry, and geomechanics and is capable of characterizing the physical and chemical properties of rocks as they pertain to oil recovery and/or carbon storage. Much of the AGL’s work involves petrographic and routine core analysis looking at the porosity (holes between grains) of rock samples and their intrinsic permeability (the ability of liquid to flow through the holes in the rock), but that work serves as the foundation for the work that Smith considers to be the real expertise of the AGL: its ability to perform advanced evaluations, including the evaluation of naturally occurring versus induced fractures in the Bakken, strength determination of proppants, and two-phase relative permeability.

“Our core analyses give us a fundamental understanding of the reservoirs we are dealing with—the mineralogy of these rocks and how much pore space is in them (the pore throat size). Then we can determine what fluids occupy that pore space and how well those fluids are able to flow from one point to the next,” said Smith.

The AGL’s advanced applications can characterize formations to inform the well drilling, stimulation or hydraulic fracturing of the surrounding rock, and well completion (the running of tubing and lines to finish off the well) processes. The AGL has looked at hydraulic fracturing techniques and how the materials used there, such as proppants and the fluids used to transmit them, are performing. At the reservoir scale, the AGL is making links between pore throat sizes and capillary entry pressures, or pressure regimes, in the reservoir. Ultimately, the goal is to understand the practices that are currently employed in an effort to make improvements that ensure sustained movement of fluids throughout the reservoir.

“Two projects we are working on right now serve as great examples of the extremes we are dealing with,” said Smith. “One’s a conventional, traditional clastic reservoir in the early stages of CO2tertiary oil recovery where we’ve been focused on advanced reservoir characterization, and the other is a less conventional, tight reservoir—the Bakken—from which we’re developing innovative techniques to determine how best to optimize aspects of both surface and subsurface processes, ultimately yielding higher production values for both oil and associated gas resources. Both projects are equally challenging and require the full attention of our multidisciplinary staff. Of course, none of these projects would move forward without the involvement of our industry partners. It is through these partnerships that we grow our understanding of these complex reservoirs, both conventional and unconventional.

“Much of our work involves developing an understanding of how multiple fluids behave in a reservoir. Today, for example, we’re pushing CO2 and brine through a Bakken rock sample. That’s going to tell us if these rocks have an affinity for one fluid versus the other and help our partners to make informed decisions regarding strategic planning,” Smith added. “When we start to talk about how easily, or with how much difficulty, these fluids move through these rock samples, it’s all going to come down to a specific handful of variables that we are currently positioned to evaluate through a myriad of physical laboratory tests and validate using state-of-the-art software packages common to the petroleum industry.”

Another large EERC project is the Plains CO2 Reduction (PCOR) Partnership and its quest to safely store CO2. Smith said about 98% to 99% of the AGL’s work is focused on both oil and gas and on CO2 storage, but the two are linked.

“CO2 enhanced oil recovery is likely the bridge to large-scale carbon capture and storage,” said Smith.

Over the last 10 years, the EERC has been involved in multiple demonstration projects whereby CO2 is safely injected into the subsurface for the dual purpose of enhanced oil recovery leading to incidental CO2 storage. The AGL has played a role in each of these projects through the characterization of rock samples representing both storage sinks and seals.

Smith points out that the AGL works in tandem with the other labs at the EERC and relies on a multidisciplinary staff to answer the questions of its clients. Geologists and engineers work together to develop laboratory-based data sets that are then fed into static and dynamic reservoir simulations.

“The EERC is good at forming relationships and staying focused on the task at hand,” said Smith. “We are committed to this day in and day out. We are in tune with the research communities and, most importantly, our partners’ needs. We’ve developed excellent relations with the oil and gas community within and outside of the Williston Basin. While the Bakken is somewhat unique in its geology and the approach to producing oil from it, we can still gain incremental knowledge by listening to our partners from outside of the region and working together on new approaches to drilling, completion, and characterization activities. This is particularly true of CO2 injection for enhanced oil recovery. This practice has been ongoing for over 4 decades and has the potential to be one mechanism to add to the world-class success the Bakken is currently seeing.”

“Our goal is to produce data sets that will enhance the oil production from the Williston Basin. Enhancing production by just 1% could result in recovering up to 9 Bbbl of additional oil,” said Smith. “The Bakken Formation has been the toughest for us so far, but tight unconventional oil plays have been identified worldwide. The information we get from the Bakken is really going to aid in the development of these newly emerging systems. So while we’re concerned with the Bakken on a local level, this work has global implications.”

For more information on the AGL or other EERC laboratories, see or contact Steve Smith, EERC Research Manager, at (701) 777-5108 or Beth Kurz, Senior Research Manager, at (701) 777-5050.