Entrepreneurs are a special breed. The good ones have that special blend of vision, timing and risk tolerance most others lack. The really good ones find a way to use their special talents to make their communities a better place to live and work. Mike John is a really good entrepreneur.
As we all know, the shale plays across the United States have been game changers. This was recently noted by former United States Secretary of State, George Shultz, in a 2014 book he edited titled Game Changers: Energy on the Move. They have created wealth and opportunities unimaginable a decade ago, and history is being made in the Marcellus Shale every day. And thanks to Mike John, a truly unique initiative is underway near Morgantown, West Virginia.
The greater Morgantown area, the region, West Virginia and the nation all will benefit tremendously from the entrepreneurial instincts of Mike John. Mike is a Lewis County native, longtime oil and gas industry leader, and the founder and CEO of Northeast Natural Energy, LLC (“Northeast”). Mike has assembled a superb team of industry veterans along with the best and brightest newcomers to engage in a truly groundbreaking public, private and academic partnership. Northeast has partnered with West Virginia University (“WVU”), The Ohio State University and the United States Department of Energy/National Energy Technology Laboratory (“DOE/NETL”) to form the first field laboratory designed for the long-term study of unconventional resource development. This partnership will make a huge contribution to the continuing development of unconventional shale plays, such as the Marcellus.
As Mike notes, “We have deep roots in West Virginia, and it is our goal to help any way we can. Our participation in this project is driven by our desire to help improve science, enhance technology and expand understanding of the natural gas industry. The Morgantown Industrial Park site offers a convenient location for researchers and students to conduct their studies, and we look forward to working together with them on this project.”
This long horizon research focus is especially timely – low natural gas and oil prices make it imperative for E&P companies to find ways to simultaneously increase efficiencies, lower costs and have a significant reduction in the environmental footprint of energy development. There has been a profound paradigm shift from scarcity to abundance in the Unites States, which bodes well for the future, but it is a future that may include a few billion more added to the world population with increasing energy demands and dreams to fulfill. Increasing efficiency, resulting in better economics and a smaller environmental footprint is a virtuous, no-regrets goal, which can rally a diverse legion of stakeholders.
The foundation for this game changing partnership is a five-year, $11 million agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy. This funding will allow the research team to create and manage the Marcellus Shale Energy and Environment Laboratory (“MSEEL”), a field site and dedicated research laboratory at the Morgantown Industrial Park where Northeast very successfully drilled two previous horizontal Marcellus wells. Under this partnership, Northeast will drill two horizontal Marcellus wells, with a “science well” drilled nearby. These drilling, completion and production activities collectively will provide unprecedented access to an unconventional shale development project and utilize the latest available technologies to develop, validate and apply an updated knowledge base to improve recovery efficiency while minimizing environmental impacts.
Dr. Tim Carr, the Marshall S. Miller Energy Professor of Geology of WVU, who will serve as the principal investigator of the investment and director of MSEEL, said “Northeast Natural Energy works to responsibly develop resources in an environmentally sensitive way, as evidenced by their operations in the Morgantown Industrial Park and elsewhere in Monongalia County. This is a great partnership, and we look forward to getting the project underway.” Dr. Carr noted the importance of MSEEL, as there has been no comprehensive long-term field study addressing baseline measurements, subsurface development and environmental monitoring with unconventional resource development. He went on to say, “No other study can replicate and validate results with subsequent drilling and completion events. The only way to integrate the three is to conduct long-term research on a single site, which is what we are going to be able to do.”
The Ohio State University will work in close collaboration with WVU to provide support of subsurface scientific investigations of the geology and microbiology from samples taken in the drill hole, along with guidance and support for the environmental work at the site. “This cooperative study will maximize the energy and environmental research strengths of both universities,” said Jeff Daniels, director of the Ohio State Subsurface Energy Resource Center and primary investigator for Ohio State.
“The United States Department of Energy/National Energy Technology Laboratory (DOE/NETL) is excited about this new partnership and the opportunity to demonstrate cutting-edge science and advanced technologies to ensure the prudent development of the nation’s shale gas resources in an efficient and environmentally safe fashion,” said Jared Ciferno, director of NETL’s Strategic Center for Natural Gas and Oil. “It is envisioned that this partnership will be the first of many long-term, field-based opportunities that will bring science and technology to the forefront in shaping our nation’s energy future.”
Mike John reiterates why this type of study is essential for the industry: “Northeast will be implementing technologies not yet prevalent in the Appalachian Basin, helping to define the next generation of technologies, including bi-fuel drilling and completion crews, dissolvable frac plugs, coil assisted fracs, improved sand logistics, and a dynamically engineered frac design. Northeast believes that by designing fit for purpose drilling and completion equipment, specifically for operations in the Appalachian Basin, that it can trim the well site design to a reduced width of 100’, dramatically reducing the footprint of a ridge top well site.”
The success of this unique, long horizon partnership requires a tremendous amount of collaboration between oil and gas operations, such as Northeast, along with their drilling and completion service providers, and the brightest minds in academia. This is indeed a great opportunity to demonstrate how the immediate discipline of the marketplace imposed on Northeast can combine with the long research horizons of two land-grant universities and a government agency whose focus is energy development to help the Unites States improve economically, environmentally and in national security.
Portions of this article were originally printed in West Virginia University's Eberly College of Arts and Sciences' publication.