SD Mines Energy Resources Initiative Builds Momentum as US Production Peaks

Nine SD Mines students join Energy Resources Initiative director Dan Soeder on a hydraulic fracturing operation during a visit to the Bakken oilfields of North Dakota. The trip was funded by Halliburton.

One of the primary goals of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology’s Energy Resources Initiative (ERI) is to conduct research that improves the efficiency and reduces the environmental risks of producing fossil fuels while providing energy security for America.

While the country’s oil and gas industry has been in a down cycle, recent data shows US production is reaching a peak not seen since the 1970s due to increased development of shale oil and gas.  Dan Soeder, the new ERI director, is an industry expert on development of shale resources and reserves. Soeder is less than a year into his new position at SD Mines. He has spent this time quietly putting down roots to firmly establish the program. Soeder has been developing research projects, building relationships with industry and pursuing funding. The aim is for SD Mines to grow as a valuable industry resource, both in supplying future engineers for this sector and in providing solutions for efficient and safe oil and gas production.

Soeder left the U.S. Department of Energy last spring to become Mines’ first ERI director, bringing with him 30 years of experience as a hydrologist and a geologist, with a particular focus on shale gas, water resources, and sequestration of carbon dioxide.

The ERI was initially announced in 2014 – when the price of oil was over $100 per barrel – as a vehicle for SD Mines to showcase its research expertise in water resources, materials development and in the enhanced recovery of hydrocarbons from fine-grained reservoirs.   

But the energy economy soon entered a depressed state, with the price per barrel of crude oil dropping to $29.64 in January of 2016. The drop has slowed Soeder’s efforts to grow the ERI. Research dollars are highly competitive nationwide, and industry has cut jobs and production and pulled back on support. Energy research institutes were already established in the Rocky Mountain region at University of Wyoming, University of North Dakota, and Colorado School of Mines, to name a few, and SD Mines has been challenged to find a foothold with potential industry sponsors. 

The SD Mines concept for the ERI focuses on students. Specifically, graduate students who are interested in performing research on issues relevant to the energy industry, and solving real-world scientific and engineering problems. Oil prices have been trending upward since last summer, from June’s low of $46.32 to January’s high of nearly $65 per barrel, and Soeder sees industry adding positions again in the near future. He anticipates positive changes in the industry will be reflected by increased enrollment in the petroleum systems minor and energy-related graduate degrees.

“Energy has always been a cyclical business, and SD Mines can and should use this time advantageously to position ourselves for the inevitable resurgence,” Soeder says.

Last fall, eight students (four male and four female from the Women in Science and Engineering organization) took a two-day tour of the Bakken oilfields in a trip funded by Halliburton. Halliburton engineers discussed their track into petroleum careers, demonstrated how they test well cement and put Mines students to work mixing frack fluid gel and then breaking it back down into water. The trip also included a visit to an active hydraulic fracturing operation at a well site and a tour through a gas processing plant where propane, ethane, butane and other valuable condensates are removed from the Bakken gas before it goes into a pipeline. Students also visited a wastewater disposal operation that included an injection well. Halliburton followed up with students several weeks later to remind them of internship and employment opportunities.

Soeder and Scyller Borglum, a graduate research assistant and Ph.D. candidate in geological engineering at SD Mines, will continue building upon such industry relationships. Borglum previously worked as a petroleum engineer in the Bakken oilfields of North Dakota before the downturn, and she has been assisting Soeder with the development of the ERI. The spring months are booked with company visits to introduce the ERI and lay out how it is poised to assist industry.

“We are trying to build momentum and convince businesses that this is where they should come to do their research,” says Borglum, who developed a novel tensile strength test to measure the poroelastic behavior of fine-grained rock in pursuit of her Ph.D. She presented her research last year at the Society of Petroleum Engineers meeting in Moscow, Russia. The goal of Borglum’s research is to improve the efficiency of hydraulic fracturing by better understanding how the rock deforms and breaks under elevated internal pressures.

Numerous publications by Soeder and Borglum within the past year and in coming months are further establishing Mines’ expertise and credibility within the petroleum industry, especially in the area of environmental responsibility. Topics of their research include the geologic processes that create shale and possible roles of these formations in carbon dioxide management; the history and engineering behind shale gas development in the United States; sustainable technologies to reduce the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing; and an assessment of the risks to groundwater quality from unconventional gas and oil development.

The pair are also writing a shale textbook together.

“Shale gas resources are of interest internationally in Europe, Australia, Africa, China, and South America, among other places,” Soeder says. “Many nations have been hesitant to develop their shales until environmental issues are resolved in the United States and Canada, the current major developers. Also, developing new shale resources is a trial-and-error process that requires numerous, expensive field tests to determine the right combination of frack fluids, additives, pumping rates and pressures that are effective on a particular formation. Being able to quantify these rock properties in the lab using a process like Scyller’s could provide a major breakthrough.  SD Mines has an opportunity to step onto the world stage as the go-to resource for technical expertise related to shale gas.”

Last September, the Geological Survey of Canada invited Soeder to Quebec to discuss environmental monitoring for shale gas wells, and in July he will travel to China to participate in a Chinese Academy of Sciences panel discussion on shale gas development.  Additionally, Borglum has participated in similar discussions with researchers from the University of Alberta, whom she met last year in Russia.

In January, a lab space in the Mineral Industries building was designated for petrophysics research. Soeder and Borglum are gathering equipment and tools to construct basic core testing apparatus. The first modified instrument will help senior Hunter Lang investigate enhanced oil recovery in the Madison Limestone from the Williston Basin.

To give the Energy Resources Initiative some forward momentum, funding, research and lab space need to come together simultaneously. “We must ensure the industry knows that the ERI at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology is open for business to answer their questions. We want this to be seen as a world-class facility, and Dan and I are excited to move in that direction,” Borglum says.

Their persistence and patience is paying off. It appears that an environmental risk study for Bakken shale wells on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota will be moving forward, possibly by May. SD Mines will assist the Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara Nation with the siting and installation of groundwater monitoring wells to collect baseline data near wellpads at selected field locations. The goal is to quantify the environmental risks of drilling and fracking shale on a pristine site.

Soeder is currently developing a $750,000 proposal for the RD Petro group in United Arab Emirates to investigate shale production optimization technology, focused on understanding the properties of fine-grained rocks with respect to stress sensitivity, frackability, oil-water-gas interactions, and their relationships to pore structure and geology. “We think linking these properties to geology will improve predictability,” he says.

Additionally, Soeder recently submitted a proposal to SD EPSCoR for a $10 million National Science Foundation project to be conducted over five years. Mines’ ERI project is called Optimization of Fossil Fuel and Geothermal Resources for Indigenous Development and proposes to investigate the production of shallow gas and/or geothermal energy for local use in isolated, small tribal and rural communities that currently import their energy from great distances. The project includes resource assessment, engineering, design, utilization and sociological components. The ERI has also been collaborating with the Colorado School of Mines to develop research ideas for improving the efficiency and reducing the cost of geothermal energy drilling. A funding opportunity announcement for this work is anticipated from the DOE Geothermal Technology Office.

“We have been working hard to establish research projects and facilities for the ERI at SD Mines. We have several other irons in the fire, and I am anticipating that additional projects will materialize within the next six months,” Soeder says. “The ultimate goal is to develop a graduate research program that will enable our students to perform investigations that are relevant to the energy industry, positioning them as well-qualified, prospective job candidates.”

Eventually, the ERI would also like to offer energy-related courses at SD Mines as part of the petroleum systems minor and also support a regular energy lecture as part of the Department of Geology & Geological Engineering’s weekly lecture series. Soeder and Borglum are planning to revive the New Horizons Energy Conference, an annual energy event last held at SD Mines in 2014. A two-day conference is planned for October 2018 at Surbeck Center on campus with student posters, talks, a short course and associated field trips.


Last edited 10/3/2023 4:56:46 PM

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