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Introducing Geoscientist Peter Eichhubl - Understanding Our Faults

bridges vol. 30, July 2011 / News from the Network: Austrian Researchers Abroad

By Juliet M. Beverly

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Dr. Peter Eichhubl

In August 2009, the US Department of Energy (DOE) announced the establishment of 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs) with the goal of accelerating scientific breakthroughs in the search for revolutionary new energy solutions. This May, DOE hosted the first Energy Frontier Research Centers Summit & Forum in Washington, DC, to present to the public the early achievements of EFRCs. Prominent speakers included policymakers and legislators such as DOE Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and Senator Jeff Bingaman. Also among the participants was Peter Eichhubl, an Austrian geoscientist working in fault and fracture research at the University of Texas, Austin (UT Austin) in the Jackson School of Geoscience, Bureau of Economic Geology, whose research tackles the issue of our rising energy needs.

Eichhubl, recently returned to the US from his native Austria where he maintains a visiting scientist position at the University of Vienna, relates the majority of his work to a theme that he has been studying since his 1997 Ph.D. dissertation at the University of California, Santa Barbara: rock deformation.

Rocks deform because of plate tectonics, which are movements in the Earth's lithosphere. When these movements occur in areas where the plates move against one another, they can cause earthquakes and volcanic activity, the formation of mountains and sedimentary basins, oceanic trenching and rock fracture. Many of the earth's natural resources such as oil, natural gas, and soil with ore deposits are concentrated near past or present plate boundaries. "It is of high interest to the gas and oil industry to know how the chemistry and deformation of rock can lead to accessing these resources," said Eichhubl referring to the surveys of the oil reservoir of Santa Barbara's coastline conducted for his Ph.D. study. Although California proved to be a dream state for fault and fracture research, a natural gas and oil research hub was thriving in Texas - home to many of America's big oil companies.
 

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Image courtesy of Peter Eichhubl
Natural oil-stained fractures in a fractured oil reservoir in Southern California.
Image courtesy of Peter Eichhubl
A natural fracture in a core sample from a producing gas reservoir in East Texas.

Arriving at UT Austin in 2010, Eichhubl became affiliated with the Fracture Research and Application Consortium (FRAC) housed within the Bureau of Economic Geology (BEG), as well as the Center for Frontiers of Subsurface Energy Security, which is one of the 46 EFRCs. BEG, a research department of UT Austin that focuses mainly on natural gas, oil, groundwater resources, and coastal processes, receives funding for projects from the DOE, federal programs, research grants, and some state funding. Where public funding or grants may be lacking, FRAC helps to make funding ends meet. FRAC is an industry consortium to which companies can pay a yearly membership in order to access the expertise of BEG's scientists. "Companies are able to give their recommendations on research areas that they are interested in gaining knowledge on, and scientists can determine if the recommendation is a promising research venture. Because fracturing and faulting affect how fluids move through the Earth's subsurface, it is of importance to the oil and gas industry how these resources can be produced from reservoirs that are controlled by the fractures and faults," said Eichhubl. "It's hard to do. Fractures are too small to be detected using geophysical techniques. Predicting their occurrence is trying to find something you cannot see."

Most of Eichhubl's research is fieldwork based and has included locations in the US, Canada, Mexico, Austria, and Scotland, that show certain features of rock-formation structure, such as in shale and sandstone. Industry and government leaders alike want to know about these characteristics and where they are located. While ultrasound technology can detect the location of large-scale fractures, it has a harder time detecting small ones. Using surface observation, along with geophysical, statistical, and chemical tools, Eichhubl and his colleagues can make predictions about where these small-scale fractures occur in the subsurface. With this information, oil and gas companies have a better idea where to drill to extract these resources. Searching for these reservoirs in small-scale fractures, Eichhubl says, are considered essential for oil and gas production from "unconventional" reservoirs - reservoirs that have to be "fracked" before production. These reservoirs are typically very tight, low-porosity structures - the gas will not just "flow out," so one would expect to wait a few hundred years. "To get the gas out in quantity, gas producers have to frack the reservoir - inducing fracturing of the formation by injecting high-pressurized water into the oil or gas reservoir. These induced fractures connect the already existing natural fractures and allow the well to produce."

The discussion of the promises and perils of hydraulic fracturing, often called "fracking," has turned into a big topic in the US and Europe. "As researchers, our prime interest is actually in predicting natural fractures and how they interact with induced fractures, but in the media, fracking has turned into a bit of a hot potato," Eichhubl explains.

For example, in upstate New York, environmental groups rallied on June 30 this year after news that the state's moratorium on natural gas exploration using hydraulic fracturing might be lifted. "It is genuine feeling to be concerned about this," says Eichhubl.  "There are some environmental implications associated with oil and gas production from unconventional reservoirs, especially in the case of groundwater resources and possible aquifer contamination." He points out that, although caution is warranted, perhaps the scientific and engineering community has not communicated sufficiently with the public, leading to misinformation. "All industrial operations have risks, and so does the oil and gas production from unconventional reservoirs. However these risks can't be attributed to the fracking process alone," said Eichhubl. "To prohibit hydraulic fracturing entirely would severely limit access to a significant domestic energy resource. With the proper protocols and oversight, one can effectively minimize the risks." In the US, for example, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently in the midst of studying the impact of fracking on groundwater and drinking water. EPA is developing a so-called Underground Injection Control (UIC) to permit guidance of hydraulic fracturing activities that use diesel fuels in fracturing fluids.

Eichhubl is working on other projects related to CO2 sequestration, another hot topic during the EFRCs Summit & Forum. He and his colleagues are investigating the potential for and outcome of capturing CO2 emissions, using water injection into depleted

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Eichhubl at Scotland Loch.

natural oil and gas reservoirs.  Faults and fractures tend to be flow pathways that route back to the surface. Areas with high CO2 emissions, e.g., around coal-burning power or cement plants, are examples of where this type of sequestration could potentially be applied, using water injections to trap and seal CO2 for the long term. Applying the same knowledge used for their fault and fracture research on oil and gas flow, Eichhubl and his colleagues will study the best geological locations for CO2 injections, characteristics of these formations, and practices on how to monitor CO2 surface leakage.

Eichhubl notices the increased media and public attention devoted nowadays to issues like hydraulic fracturing or CO2 sequestration, compared to the past. "Twenty years ago we were in our traditional ‘ivory towers,' wrote our papers, and it was up to some science writers to go through the journals and see if there was something interesting and contact us. Now it's almost the other way around," says Eichhubl. "Science has become more of a business, and you've always got to be looking for ways to communicate what you do and to promote your expertise."
 

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This article is based on an interview conducted by the author, Juliet M. Beverly, with geoscientist Peter Eichhubl at the University of Texas at Austin, Jackson School of Geosciences, Bureau of Economic Geology.



Sources:

Kious, W. J., and R. I. Tiling. This Dynamic Earth: The Story of Plate Tectonics.  "Plate tectonics and people."  Online Edition.  USGS, May 5, 1999.
<http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/dynamic/tectonics.html> (accessed June 29, 2011).

"Democrats Want More Information on Hydraulic Fracturing." House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.  May 11, 2011.
<http://democrats.science.house.gov/
press-release/democrats-want-more-information-hydraulic-fracturing-0> (accessed May 11, 2011).

Hydraulic Fracturing Background Information - EPA
<http://water.epa.gov/type/groundwater/uic/class2/hydraulicfracturing/wells_hydrowhat.cfm> (accessed June 29, 2011)
 

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