EnergyFactor By ExxonMobil | Pespectives has a new home

Are shale gas and tight oil really still “unconventional”?

In recent years oil and natural gas production from the nation’s shale and tight rock regions has been described as “unconventional,” largely to differentiate it from the more common oil and gas production methods that have reigned for many decades.

Conventional has meant drilling wells where oil or gas, aided by natural pressure and high rock permeability, flows to the wellbore with little or no stimulation. It’s an approach that’s been evolving and improving since Col. Drake drilled in Titusville a century-and-a-half ago.

Unconventional production, meanwhile, refers to innovative methods of oil and gas extraction that use different techniques. These usually combine horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing in formations with low permeability to create pathways for trapped oil and gas to flow.

The innovation and imagination at play in unconventional energy production has proved to be one of the great technological marvels of our age. As a consequence of shale energy’s disruptive success, the term unconventional production seems increasingly to be describing the new conventional. Indeed, it has become relatively mainstream in the United States in less than a decade.

There has been no better evidence of that fact than in a recent “Today in Energy” feature from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.


According to EIA, in 2013 natural gas from shale provided the largest share of the country’s natural gas supply – 40 percent of total natural gas production. At some point late last year, shale gas production actually surpassed production from non-shale natural gas wells. Coincidentally, these new supplies from shale have enabled the United States to become the world’s leading natural gas producer.

That’s extraordinary, something nobody could have imagined happening as recently as a decade ago.

Given the huge volumes of oil and natural gas being brought online from America’s shale plays, I’d say it might be about time to retire the term “unconventional.”

As with any form of energy production, there are risks that must be managed. In the case of shale energy development, that means things like constructing wells properly to protect groundwater, disclosing the content of fluids used in hydraulic fracturing, improving systems to limit leaks of methane, and addressing concerns about water use.

Our industry is taking such steps. We have registered significant improvements in each area since the unconventional energy revolution began in earnest a decade ago. And we’ll continue seeking improvements as shale energy fuels more and more of America’s economy.



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