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Technology being developed to tap huge marine shale oil reserves in Mississippi

Getting to the black gold

It has been estimated that seven billion barrels of oil lie in the Tuscaloosa marine shale formation located 11,000 feet below the ground in southwest Mississippi and neighboring parishes in Louisiana. Geologists know the oil is there, and that the reserves are huge. But how do you get it out?

“The risk in this play is not in finding the oil — the risk is in producing commercial quantities by applying the latest drilling and completion technologies,” says Jack Moody, director of the Energy and Coastal Division, Mississippi Office of Geology. “Wilkinson and Amite counties and part of Pike County appear at this time to hold the most promise in this play in Mississippi.”

Moody wrote an article published in the Oil & Gas Journal, Oct. 11, 1999, titled “Tuscaloosa marine shale oil play seems ready for liftoff in Mississippi.” In it he describes current efforts towards developing the technology for widespread development of this known oil reserve.

A 1997 Louisiana State University study estimates reserves for the Tuscaloosa marine shale formation at seven billion barrels of oil. Obviously, that creates great incentive to develop the technology to recover the oil.

Marine shale, unlike the Tuscaloosa sands formation underneath it, doesn’t give up the oil easily. Moody said geologists have had success with recovering oil from similar formations elsewhere in the country that are raising hopes for economical recovery of the oil from the Tuscaloosa marine shale.

“There is a lot of oil sitting down there,” Moody said. “Some of the technologies out now would give you a shot at trying to drill and complete in Tuscaloosa source rock.”

Moody explains that the Tuscaloosa marine shale is a source of oil for underlying Tuscaloosa sands. Oil very slowly migrates out from the marine shale into the sands where it is easier for drillers to recover the oil. Rather than just get the oil that comes from the source rocks, it would be great to be able to get at the source itself.

For many years explorers and drillers have come to expect gas kicks and oil on the pits when they drilled through Tuscaloosa marine shale on the way to the Lower Tuscaloosa sands. Moody said no doubt many of those explorers have dreamed of developing some technique to get the oil out of the shale.

“There is a huge resource sitting there,” Moody said. “Everybody knows it. But how do you get it out? Can you figure out a way to get it to produce? If you do, there will be a lot of activity. We’re not there yet. But drillers in other parts of the country, including North Dakota and Montana, have been producing a shale which raises interest for the similar formations in Mississippi and Louisiana.”

Moody uses the analogy of a shipwreck survivor swimming towards a life raft that stays just out of fingertip’s reach. Will the swimmer expire (the oil exploration company run out of money and determination) or will the swimmer eventually make it to the raft?

In 1992 a major oil company in Lafayette, La., considered drilling a horizontal marine shale well in southwest Mississippi, but ended up deciding against pursuing the $3-million experiment. An independent oil company in Natchez applied to the Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development in 1996 for funding for a similar project but the project was considered too high risk to be funded.

Moody said what was needed was someone with the dollars and the gutsy, risk-taking attitude that characterized early industry wildcatters to test the hypothesis that horizontal drilling could make this known resource commercial.

“That needed character profile may have come forward in one Randy Braswell,” Moody said. “Braswell began his risk-taking when he started buying and selling timber in Amite County at age 16. He then found himself with land after trees were harvested, so he used the sand and gravel resources to build locations for oil and gas wells.

“Then he was approached to lease some of his minerals, which resulted in his entering the oil and gas business. This success led to his participation in wells as mineral owner and working interest investor. Braswell developed an early appreciation for utilizing all of the resource at hand, a trait he carried into the first successful horizontal well drilled in the Tuscaloosa marine shale trend.”

A lot was learned from the project that used the consulting services of Wayne Upchurch on geology and geophysicis and the engineering services of David Craft. Moody said the well represents a giant step toward the possible establishment of a new technology-driven play in Mississippi.

“Braswell, Upchurch and Watkins learned a lot about horizontal drilling in the marine shale,” Moody said. “The next well that is being planned will greatly benefit from that experience. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that technology might have opened the door for widespread development of a known reserve. Whether soon or not so soon, someone is going to figure out how to make this work. Braswell hopes it will be him.”

Upchurch has said that if marine shale becomes widely produced in the future, then every wildcat drilled for Lower Tuscaloosa and deeper in this area can be drilled knowing there is marine shale production behind the pipe. Moody said that kind of situation would lend itself to 3D seismic programs that would result in a play that incorporates the best science this part of Mississippi has seen.

“Other marine shale wells have been permitted, and several drilling deals are being marketed,” Moody said. “The play seems set for liftoff.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.


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