While the contentious debate over hydraulic fracturing in oil and natural gas production rages on, UT Austin Prof. Jon Olson quietly and expertly conducts research into how the technology can be used as efficiently, safely, and as environmentally sound as possible.
As chairman of the university’s celebrated Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department – ranked No. 1 among such graduate programs nationwide – Olson leads several research projects, with a focus on production optimization and environmental impact issues related to unconventional oil and gas development.
A Minnesota native who studied civil engineering and geology at the University of Notre Dame as an undergraduate, Olson went on to earn his Ph.D. in Applied Earth Sciences from Stanford University. He worked for several years in Mobil’s Dallas-based lab before coming to UT in 1995.
Olson’s specialty areas include physical and numerical modelling of hydraulic fracture propagation from horizontal wells, the interaction of hydraulic fractures with natural fractures, modelling production from gas and oil reservoirs, and wellbore stability.
Learn more about Dr. Olson’s ongoing research projects.
In addition to his research, Olson also teaches an introductory course in petroleum engineering to freshman students, ‘Engineering, Energy and the Environment.’
“Most of what I do is hydraulic fracturing,” he says. “I have the engineering background, but my twist on the problem is to be more geological.”
Over the past 10 – 15 years, Olson says, research has focused on “how hydraulic fracturing works differently because of the rock, so I feel like I’m well-positioned to contribute in that space.”
One area that has received considerable attention recently is induced seismicity associated with oil and gas production – small to moderate earthquakes thought by many to be linked to the disposal of ‘produced water’ that is pumped back to the surface from underground drilling operations. Olson is part of a multidisciplinary research team of scientists and other faculty from across the UT Austin campus studying the problem.
Dispelling myths through science
Acutely aware of how fracking has become a lightning rod for controversy in the public debate of energy and environmental issues, Olson is convinced that such risks – often related to water quality, water supply, methane emissions, or earthquakes – are manageable.
The potential for groundwater contamination from hydraulically fractured wells is minimal, Olson says, as long as industry best practices are observed. Importantly, the same risks now ascribed to fracked wells have always been a concern throughout the long history of conventional oil and gas drilling, where fracking is not used.
“The thing that’s at risk is the well bore – casing and cement integrity are the issues,” he says, adding that “there’s no extra risk to groundwater resources” from the deployment of hydraulic fracturing thousands of feet below the surface.
While there have been a few instances of near-surface water contamination, those cases are rare, Olson adds, noting that there are nearly a million active wells in the U.S., and that the majority of those wells are fracked.
“I don’t think this is a huge issue,” he says. “There’s always a risk. But I think industry has a pretty good record.”
With respect to water supply, Olson notes that the total amount of water used by all U.S. oil and gas producers is less than 1 percent of the nation’s water usage as a whole. Still, Olson says, any water used for industrial purposes can be a sensitive issue in certain regions.
“If you’re in South Texas and you’re in a drought, any additional demand on water is a problem,” he notes. “But with recycling and the ability to use brine, I think that issue is going to go away.”
At the forefront of technological innovation
At Mobil’s Dallas-based lab during the late 1980s – mid-1990s, Olson worked on a research team that developed hydraulic fracturing techniques for tight-gas sandstone.
At that time, producers were worried about having fluid that had good viscosity to carry sand,” Olson recalls. “A lot of the technology went into making gel-based fluids.”
After numerous unsuccessful attempts at applying hydraulic fracturing techniques in shale, a team of researchers working for Mitchell Energy switched from gel-based fluids, commonly used in the fracking of sandstone formations, to cheaper, water-based fluids.
Lower-viscosity ‘slicked-up water’ – “basically water with friction-reducers” – Olson says, ultimately proved to be the winning mix, spurring the explosive growth of oil and gas production from shale that prompted successive innovations.
Advances in horizontal drilling and improved fracture diagnostics from micro-seismic data allowed producers to cover a much greater surface area and create many more fractures than what gel-based fluids had allowed in sandstone formations. And, Olson adds, it was a lot cheaper.
The result was an exponential increase in the productivity of oil and gas, triggering what is now commonly referred to as the shale gas revolution.
To illustrate the enormity of such innovations and technological changes to his students, Olson provides a succinct example.
“A vertical well in the Barnett (Shale) drilled in 1996, with a single frack job, took about 17 years to produce two billion cubic feet of gas,” he says.
“A horizontal well, drilled in 2011, took six months to produce the same amount of gas.”
Continued opposition to hydraulic fracturing in the face of such evidence comes, in part, Olson suggests, from a segment of society that opposes oil and gas production under any circumstances.
Faced with what is often an emotional response to the science behind the use of such technology will require an alternative approach than one scientists typically have employed, Olson says. He points to the inclusion of Psychology Prof. Art Markman and Communications Prof. Lee Ann Kahlor in UT’s study of induced seismicity as important additions to a team comprised mostly of engineers and geologists.
“You can’t combat an emotional argument with a technical argument,” Olson observes. “You need to reach out to people in a different way.”
And while he acknowledges the merit in reducing pollution emitted during the extraction and production of fossil fuels, as well as the importance of efforts to de-carbonize the electric grid, Olson points to the continued role fossil fuels will serve in meeting energy demand.
“Solar and wind on the grid is not possible without natural gas power plants,” he says, particularly in the absence of commercial-scale energy storage.
When not modelling the fracture propagation of horizontal wells, Olson can be found biking along Austin’s greenbelts with his wife, Dr. Hilary Olson, a UT geologist who leads educational and training programs on unconventional resources and CO₂ storage for state and federal regulators and the public. Hilary also has conducted petroleum geology research related to the Gulf of Mexico, and has overseen STEM programs aimed at middle- and high-school girls.
Something else the Olsons family shares is a love of music: Jon plays drums and Hilary plays keyboard. Whenever they can, the two set aside their research into rocks and wellbores to frequent Austin music venues and listen to their son perform in one of his several bands.