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Utah geologists snare $1.6 million for energy-related studies

Published: Monday, Dec. 10 2012 5:07 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Geological Survey received more than $1.6 million from the federal government for a pair of studies aimed at boosting environmental protections from oil and gas drilling while at the same time making extraction more efficient for industry.

One of the two U.S. Department of Energy studies funded with the money involves protecting groundwater from contamination by saline water that is naturally produced with gas from drilling activity in the Uintah Basin of eastern Utah.

Such extraction already produces a significant volume of water, which is anticipated to increase with accelerated industry activity in the years to come. As it stands, the water has to be hauled from well sites to specially designed evaporation ponds or put into porous rocks at the right depth to avoid contaminating shallow freshwater aquifers.

"Everybody benefits with what we will do because any of the information becomes part of the public domain," said Thomas Chidsey, the survey's chief of the petroleum section.

"It saves industry money and it alleviates some of the concerns of the general public that the water could be contaminated and where it ends up."

Under the two-year window of the study, scientists with the Utah Geological Survey will determine the quantity and quality of the water that is the byproduct of the drilling and identify avenues to safely and economically deal with the water.

The survey is hopeful it will find ways to reduce the water produced, particularly in light of the arid conditions in the West, or find ways to reuse it in applications that involve geothermal energy production.

As a result of the study, it is anticipated new management practices will be recommended.

The federal government is paying for 75 percent of the research, with the other 25 percent funded by the Utah Geological Survey. Chidsey said the water study was one of nine projects selected across the country by the Department of Energy, which is spending $9.4 million in that research arena.

In the second analysis, Utah researchers are anticipating the success of the North Dakota Bakken oil field to drive heightened interest in deposits in the Green River Formation and in Cane Creek shale in the Paradox Basin in southeastern Utah.

Development tapping liquid hydrocarbon production in shale formations is fueling the need for a three-year study.

"There is potential out there that is just being recognized, particularly in the Uintah Basin," Chidsey said. "With so many techniques proving so successful in the Bakken play, we are looking for the same kind of play here in Utah using similar-type techniques."

Chidsey said there is increasing interest by the industry in what is known as the Uteland Butte Zone in Duchesne and western Uintah counties and in the Cane Creek shale. In the latter, drilling has been a historical tradition as far back as the 1920s, but Chidsey said it was not until the '90s that technology such as horizontal drilling proved productive.

This study will focus on the geology of the formations and its character to help shape the best drilling strategies with the least amount of environmental impact, he added.

The survey will be able to tap what has been done by industry so far, apply the science of geology to the results and provide a blueprint of sorts for the best processes moving forward.

"We think both of these studies will have a lot of benefit to both industry and to the citzens of Utah," Chidsey said.

Funding for this particular research is being provided by the DOE's National Energy Technology Laboratory at an 80 percent ratio, while the Utah Geological Survey will pick up the other 20 percent.

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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