Reliable, affordable, and technically recoverable energy is central to the nation’s economic and social vitality. The United States is both a major consumer of geologically based energy resources from around the world and—increasingly of late—a developer of its own energy resources. Understanding the national and global availability of those resources as well as the environmental impacts of their development is essential for strategic decision making related to the nation’s energy mix. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Energy Resources Program (ERP) is charged with providing unbiased and publicly available national- and regional-scale assessments of the location, quantity, and quality of geologically based energy resources and with undertaking research related to their development. The ERP portfolio includes research and assessments on both the domestic and the international endowment of technically recoverable hydrocarbon-based resources such as oil, natural gas, and coal, as well as for other geologically based resources that may be important contributors to the future U.S. energy mix (e.g., geothermal, methane hydrates). The ERP also conducts assessment and basic research related to non-hydrocarbon-based geologic energy resources (e.g., uranium) and contributes to research on geologically based renewable resources. The program attempts to anticipate emerging technologies and issues so that it may report on how those may affect the energy mix and the use of energy resources both in the United States and abroad.
The ERP conducts some of its research and assessments at the request of the Administration, the Department of the Interior, and Congress. ERP research and assessment priorities are otherwise based on annual reviews from an internal program council. The ERP collaborates widely with stakeholders—including other Department of the Interior bureaus, other federal agencies, foreign governments, tribal nations, states, academic and professional organizations, and the private sector—to generate information used widely for making economic, policy, and environmental decisions related to or affected by energy development.
The ERP asked the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (National Academies) to convene an ad hoc committee to consider the nation’s geologically based energy resource challenges in the context of current national and international energy outlooks (the statement of task can be found in Box 1.1 of the report). The committee was asked to consider how ERP activities and products address those challenges and align with the needs federal and nonfederal consumers of ERP products. Per the statement of task, this report contains recommendations regarding how ERP products and research could be developed over the next 10-15 years to most effectively inform both USGS energy research priorities and the energy needs and priorities of the U.S. government.
Global and domestic energy markets are in transition as energy demand growth shifts to developing economies around the world, new resource extraction technologies become available, and environmental concerns drive efforts to decarbonize energy systems in some parts of the world. Even so, the United States and the world will be reliant on geologically based energy resources for at least the next 10-15 years. The United States has become a net energy exporter owing to growing oil and gas production, but demand for and production of renewable fuels could reduce oil and gas demand in the future.
A secure, resilient, environmentally responsible, and economically competitive national energy supply is dependent on a collective effort to meet certain challenges in the energy sector. The ERP has the competence to help address many of those challenges, which include:
- Maintaining a robust understanding of the national resource inventory and its associated uncertainties. Few direct observations of the subsurface are available to support geologic resource assessments. Resource estimates depend on conceptual geologic models based on substantial interpolation and extrapolation. Resource development, however, requires extensive mapping, coupled 3-dimensional numerical modeling, and spatial and statistical analyses. Robust assessments require solid understanding of geology and geologic engineering, exploration and development technologies, access to data, appropriate data management and analysis tools, and—increasingly—an understanding of hydrology, coupled processes and their environmental impacts, and economic recovery.
- Exploring and developing geologic energy resources in an environmentally and socially responsible manner. This includes land and resource management throughout the lifecycle of resource development—from exploration to extraction, management of waste, and land reclamation. Understanding the subsurface environment is essential, as is understanding land and water use requirements; the environmental impacts of development; management of produced waters;1 the potential for aquifer contamination; avoiding or mitigating induced seismicity; geologic sequestration of carbon dioxide (CO2); and long-term geologic storage of radioactive and other energy wastes. In particular, there is a striking connection between energy and water issues throughout the energy production lifecycle. Often these issues are addressed independently, resulting in negative economic or environmental consequences. Integrated approaches to resource development and environmental management allow a better understanding of how processes are linked, and will also provide information needed to better asses the full costs of energy development.
1 Produced waters are extracted along with petroleum products; some of this water is naturally present in the subsurface and some is pumped into the reservoir during extraction to increase petroleum production.
- Overcoming technical and economic barriers to new resource development processes. Energy resources may remain in the subsurface after feasibly recoverable resources are extracted. These represent opportunities for technology development. Similarly, innovation is needed for relatively new or emerging geologic resources (e.g., engineered geothermal systems [EGS]2 and methane hydrates) to make their development feasible. Mitigation of environmental impacts (e.g., methane leakage associated with oil and gas production; reduction of produced fluid volume in oil and gas wells; induced seismicity) and waste disposal or sequestration (e.g., of CO2) are other areas needing innovation to sustain economic and responsible development that supports U.S. energy security and quality of life.
- Adapting to variable power-generation sources (e.g., wind and solar) and related energy storage. The electrical grid requires a close balance between electricity supply and demand to avoid failure. Power generation from some renewable resources (e.g., wind and solar) may vary over short timescales (e.g., minutes), and excess generation can occur when demand is low. Options for energy storage are needed as power generation from variable renewable sources increases. Subsurface storage options include compressed air energy storage (CAES) in geologic formations, pumped hydroelectric energy storage, gas storage (e.g., liquefied natural gas), and thermal storage. Understanding the characteristics of subsurface reservoirs for storage (or waste disposal), how resources can be stored and reversibly extracted, and the potential impacts of storage are necessary.
MEETING INFORMATION NEEDS
The ERP provides subsurface geologic characterization and basin-scale modeling and assessments to support strategic development and innovation, but also needs to respond to quickly to technology advances and anticipate future information needs. The ERP recognizes the challenges outlined above and responds to them in scientifically sound ways. The program succeeds in conducting innovative research in emerging areas (e.g., methane hydrates, EGS) while also generating a large number of critical resource assessments and compiling or producing data to support those assessments. Maintaining this diverse portfolio in a continually changing landscape requires flexibility on the part of the ERP.
Report conclusions are synthesized into 11 recommendations that focus on research and assessment priorities, products, and processes for the near and more distant future. They are intended to help the ERP capitalize on its strengths and become more nimble and responsive to the changing energy environment and information needs of its stakeholders.
2 Engineered geothermal systems are hydrothermal systems created by fracturing rocks at depth, and injecting water into naturally heated rocks to extract the heat. The injected water is then returned to the surface as steam or hot water and used for energy production.
Recommendation 1: Focus new and continuing activities on geologic energy resources as consistent with the ERP mission and the information needs of the nation.
The ERP can increase the relevance of its products by prioritizing its activities through constant reevaluation of current and emerging energy trends and information needs and by delivering products in formats most useful to its stakeholders. When considering program priorities, the ERP needs to remain aware of its mission and core competencies and consider the appropriateness of future expenditures on activities unrelated to geologic energy resources. ERP core competencies may also change as the domestic and international energy mix and related information needs evolve.
Recommendation 2: Give priority to geologically based research and products related to (a) existing and emerging continuous/unconventional oil and gas and produced water and (b) emerging technologies associated with geothermal energy, methane hydrates, and subsurface energy storage.
Continuous (unconventional) oil and gas exploration and development (i.e., that requiring high-water volume hydraulic fracturing—commonly called “unconventional development”) will dominate the energy sector for the next 10-15 years. Industry conducts its own assessments of those resources, but those generally are proprietary and unavailable to inform national policy. Therefore ERP assessments will need to remain a high priority and the ERP can improve them through increased transparency regarding the assessment approaches applied and the input data used, and by ensuring that assessments can be updated seamlessly when new information becomes available. Future assessments will also be more useful with information about the lifecycle of resource development, including, for instance, water resources required and information about the toxicity, environmental impacts, and disposal of produced waters. Using this kind of approach, and with input from other USGS mission areas or other agencies, the ERP might also develop risk-based maps. These could include, for example both sources of water for drilling and well completions and information about potential disposition of produced water, allowing a more consistent assessment of aquifer systems and the risk posed by produced water on them. Such output would support and be consistent with the larger USGS and Department of the Interior missions.
National-scale estimates of geothermal resource potential for conventional geothermal and EGS will continue to influence U.S. energy strategy and policies as well as research priorities. As with oil and gas assessments, geothermal resource potential estimates need to be updated as new data and technology advancements become available and when assessment methodologies are revised. The ERP can increase the impact of its assessments by making input datasets available. Incorporating information about economic recoverability would increase the utility of resource estimates for stakeholders.
The nation’s methane hydrate3 accumulations are estimated to exceed the volume of all known conventional natural gas resources; consequently, they have been a focus of multi-agency research on resource identification and production methods. Analyses of lifecycle consequences and the environmental issues surrounding significant exploitation of this energy asset warrant attention. Continued ERP collaboration on hydrate research activities in the United States and internationally and expanded consideration of environmental consequences have the potential to make the United States the world leader in methane hydrates as an energy asset. The priority given to hydrates research in the next 10-15 years, however, needs to be reassessed continually given the expected reliance on natural gas during that period, whether or not responsible and economic hydrate production technologies can be developed, and how these combine to influence the nation’s future energy mix.
Subsurface energy storage and waste disposal involve difficult-to-anticipate hydro/chemical/thermal/mechanical coupled processes and need to be high-priority areas of focus for the ERP in the near future. The long-term performance of engineered subsurface storage systems, their interactions with natural systems, and their impacts now and in the future need to be better understood and require expertise such as that found within the ERP to address.
Recommendation 3: Maintain strategic capabilities in areas such as conventional oil and gas, coal, uranium, and emerging energy sources; adjust emphasis on products and research in these and other areas based on demand for information.
Low natural gas prices and a move toward lower carbon energy sources have resulted in major changes in the U.S. energy mix (e.g., decreased demand for coal). Nonetheless, conventional oil and gas, coal, uranium, and renewable energy remain important components of the mix, and understanding their distribution and availability remains critical. The ERP, however, needs new strategies to target its activities related to these resources. Decreased emphasis on well-characterized resources, however, must not come at the cost of important ERP capacity. Interest may emerge or reemerge on topics such oil shales or bypassed residual oil zones, and the ERP needs to be ready to respond. As it is difficult to anticipate emerging interests, it is vital that the ERP stay aware of discoveries and trends so that it might adjust its portfolio and capacity as required.
Conventional oil, gas, and coal resources are generally well characterized. The current practice of regularly reassessing those resources using methodologies that have seen little change in over a decade is likely to yield only modest changes in assessment results. Targeting ERP assessments on newly discovered or less-well-characterized accumulations gives the program greater flexibility to strategically direct its capabilities. For example, coal resource assessments might focus on those resources with specific applications (metallurgy, coal gasification, and extraction of rare-earth elements). Similarly, spatial information related to human health and safety aspects associated with energy resource
3 Methane hydrates are lattices of water-ice crystals that surround and trap methane gas. Major deposits of methane hydrates are found in continental sedimentary rocks in polar regions and in oceanic sediments where water is greater than 300 meters.
development—based on the work of other organizations—might be incorporated into new assessments and thus support energy development-related remediation activities.
ERP uranium-related products are unique among U.S. government agencies and industry. Collaboratively with international organizations, the ERP has developed new methods to estimate undiscovered uranium resources and it has completed a variety of projects related to post-mining groundwater recovery. The program has also updated estimates of deposits in different host rocks and addressed the remediation of legacy uranium mines. Program staff collaborates with other USGS researchers on groundwater impacts of uranium extraction by solution mining (the primary method of uranium mining in the United States) and its remediation. Given the ERP’s capacity, the program may be asked to support decisions regarding a long-term nuclear waste storage facility, and, if dictated by policy, the need for increased domestic production of uranium. The ERP needs to continue assessing national uranium resources using the methodology it helped develop. The current balance of assessment work and basic research related to uranium development is appropriate.
INTEGRATED APPROACHES FOR THE NEXT GENERATION OF PRODUCTS
Given the growing volumes of data available to refine resource assessments, many of which are collected by the ERP or the USGS more broadly, the ERP needs to explore, identify, and apply new data analytics and machine learning tools, and approaches to its assessments. Spatial information used as input to assessments, however, is now restricted to large regional assessment polygons4 without accompanying data. The ERP needs to identify advanced statistical approaches to address higher-resolution geologic heterogeneities, coupled with petrophysical approaches for estimating rock properties. Doing so would bring many of the pieces of ERP and USGS work together and support the production of increasingly reliable resource assessments with the higher spatial resolution.
Recommendation 4: Compile and incorporate data related to environmental impacts of resource development into ERP products.
Informed decision making by policy makers, energy developers, land managers, and others requires a complete understanding of all the factors that affect the total costs of energy development. This includes mitigation and remediation of environmental impacts—an expensive component of energy development. No compilations of scientifically sound and unbiased information about the factors affecting costs, however, are publically available. The ERP, as part of the Energy and Minerals Mission area of the USGS, “conducts research and assessments on the location, quantity, and quality of…energy resources, including the economic and environmental effects of resource extraction and
4 Polygons are individual units within geographical information systems that represent areas or volumes of earth with similar characteristics.
use.”5 The ERP researches environmental factors associated with energy resource development, yet that information is released independently of its resource assessments.
ERP could apply its proven competencies incorporating into its assessments geospatially relevant elements of research it does on land and water use requirements, the environmental impacts of development, management of produced waters, the potential for aquifer contamination, avoiding or mitigating induced seismicity, and waste disposal. The program, likewise, could incorporate the geospatially relevant work in these areas by other public and private sources. ERP products could highlight the relationships between energy resource development and environmental vulnerabilities. Energy resource maps could be overlaid with maps of biodiversity and endangered and threatened species, products that depict locations of source waters needed for energy development, potential treatment and disposal sites for produced water, and the locations and impacts of energy development on air quality and on ground- and surface water quantities and qualities.
Implementation of the next recommendations will be difficult because they represent new assessment paradigms for the ERP and will require capacities and resources not likely contained within the ERP at present. A phased approach to their implementation will likely be necessary.
Recommendation 5: Apply full-lifecycle and full-system approaches when considering geologic energy resources: from initial resource assessment to development, waste disposal, and the disposition of depleted or legacy sites.
The ERP, like other federal organizations, tends to compartmentalize its efforts by subject area. Integrated approaches to analysis, however, can support energy planning now and for the future and thereby increase the value of ERP products for decision making. By combining lifecycle analyses with, for example, analysis on competing resource demands or environmental risks, trade-offs among competing values can be better understood. For instance, given the need to produce a volume of natural gas, information about where wells might be placed to minimize water needed for development and which extraction technologies might best mitigate expected environmental impacts will be instructive. The ERP has access to data that could support lifecycle and full-systems approaches to decision making that could be incorporated into assessments. The ERP of the future needs to provide readily accessible data that allows solid scenario analysis and estimation of impacts and total costs of resource development.
Recommendation 6: Improve assessments of geologic energy resources by quantifying resources according to quality and recoverability.
The ERP does not conduct economic analyses, but it could support such analyses by providing resource quality and recoverability information that helps others relate resource availability to economics of extraction under varying market conditions. Decision makers would then have information available to decide when and how to develop specific
resources to the greatest advantage—especially if lifecycle approaches to assessment are applied. ERP assessments could include information about resource quality and economic recoverability—referenced to widely accepted standards)—as well as information that would support the development (by others) of robust energy resource supply curves. Assessments with this information might also instruct decisions regarding geologic energy storage (e.g., CAES) and pumped hydroelectric energy.
Recommendation 7: Emphasize the development of multi-commodity and multireservoir geologic models at regional and basin scales.
Given the need by decision makers to weigh the impacts of different development options or combinations of options, it is advantageous to have system-level information (e.g., information about multiple commodities, multiple reservoirs, and environmental impacts) in a single ERP product. Typically, however, ERP products focus on individual energy resources at specific scales. Efforts to develop the next generation of ERP assessments could combine regional data and numerical models to understand multi-commodity, basin-scale geologic energy resource inventories. This is possible when evaluating oil and gas, coal, multiple renewable resources, water volumes and distribution, and the potential for subsurface energy storage or waste sequestration, given the many common geologic processes associated among these assessment needs.
Past ERP efforts to relate multiple commodities in a region did not include analyses of linked geologic processes. A true multi-commodity approach requires the ERP to create geologic models that describe systematic interactions among geologic processes at a basin scale. This necessitates basin-scale geologic data with variables that reflect the key geologic constraints for a given resource type. Numerical models could be used to integrate those data, to explore interactions among geologic processes, and to test hypotheses and improve predictions of the links among different energy resources (e.g., distribution of continuous [unconventional] oil and gas accumulations relative to reservoirs suitable for later underground gas storage). This level of analysis, however, is resource intensive. Collaborative efforts with other organizations might be explored and priorities set based on consumer needs.
TARGETING, IMPROVING, AND REDUCING UNCERTAINTY IN ERP PRODUCTS
The ERP conducts its oil and gas assessments using methodologies adapted both for conventional oil and gas production and for production requiring high-water-volume hydraulic fracturing (e.g., for continuous [unconventional] resources). Assessments are supported by analysis conducted at ERP chemical analytical laboratories and by basic research conducted by the program. Oil and gas assessment outputs are probability distributions of estimated ultimate recoveries (EURs) for each assessment unit, with areas of highest density of technically recoverable product noted. Coal resources assessments are also based on a prescribed methodology. The assessment methodologies used for conventional and continuous resources were last reviewed externally in 1998 and 2000,
respectively. The methodology used for coal assessments was last reviewed in 2005. Given numerous recent advances in oil and gas production technologies, in mining and processing technologies, digital data dissemination, as well as changes in the use and markets for these resources, new reviews of all three of these methodologies may be warranted to increase the relevance and accuracy of the results. The ERP can increase confidence in its research and assessment results by sufficiently monitoring industry advances and modifying its assessment methodologies and products appropriately; quantifying and documenting data and analysis methodologies and associated uncertainties; and making available more raw data.
On completion of an oil or a gas assessment, the ERP releases a brief technical summary via a USGS fact sheet that includes general characteristics and select geologic data and information. Boundaries of the assessment units may be provided in geographic information system (GIS) files with topological information (i.e., shapefiles). A complete geologic report may not be released for years after the release of fact sheets. Consumers value USGS assessments, but the lack of transparency in how the assessment methodologies are applied in a given assessment affects consumer confidence in the products, as do the lack of data made available with assessments (USGS relies heavily on proprietary commercial data) and the timeliness of product release. Consumers, for example, may not be able to ascertain the locations of producing wells relative to the assessment units, they may not be able to determine how much stratigraphic mapping informed the assessments, or they may misinterpret the data.
All these factors increase uncertainty in and diminish the usefulness of ERP products for further analysis by ERP consumers, regardless of the quality of the science behind the products.
Recommendation 8: Become the recognized custodian of national-scale, publicly available geologic energy resource data.
There is no single source of consistent, national-scale geologic data to support geologic resource development, research, policy, and regulation. Federal, state, and private sector data are collected for specific purposes making it difficult to use them for other purposes or to combine them to create regional or national-scale data sets. The ERP now maintains some databases (e.g., of coal resources; geochemistry of source rocks, oil, and gas; and produced waters). These data sets are important for ERP assessments and are used by government, industry, academics, and private citizens. Stakeholders, however, do not always view those databases as sufficiently comprehensive. There is a need for public access to the raw and derived data used as input for assessments as well as for more and different types of data (e.g., well log and drilling data, rock properties data, rock/fluid geochemistry data, and subsurface temperature and pressure data). Databases need to include information regarding their sources and generation methodologies.
Becoming the recognized public source of comprehensive information is consistent with the ERP mission to provide reliable and impartial scientific information on geologic energy resources. A goal for the ERP could be to expand its current data compilation, archiving, and dissemination function and establish itself as the national custodian and disseminator of national-scale, energy-related geoscience data for the United States. ERP
priorities for developing or maintaining its databases to meet consumer needs include creating more easily updatable data sets (and updating them when new information is available); creating databases that can accommodate new types of information when they become available; developing appropriate data-storage systems and database architectures; and increasing the ease of access to data through improved web-delivery mechanisms. The program could track and analyze who is using their products, to what end, and the impacts of those uses to make sure its databases (and other products) remain relevant.
An analysis of ERP data processes by database architecture and information management experts external to ERP is warranted. This recommendation could be implemented in stages, but requires regular input from ERP product consumers. Analysis of the overall costs and benefits of creating new digitally linked, national-scale databases is also warranted. Adopting this service role would facilitate the ability of the ERP and its product consumers to adopt lifecycle and systems approaches to energy resource assessment and management.
Recommendation 9: Improve the timeliness of ERP products and related data.
The time taken by the ERP to deliver many of its products raises concern among stakeholders that those products might be outdated and possibly irrelevant by the time of their release. The ERP releases its technical summaries of assessments (i.e., USGS fact sheets) so that assessment information is available to consumers as quickly as possible. Those products are of limited use to some stakeholders, however, because they do not include supporting data and descriptions of analytical methodologies. Product utility will increase if products are delivered before decisions about development need to be made, and if they are current. Creating updatable assessments, regional-scale models, and databases would mean that ERP products represent the newest available data and that resource estimates reflect the latest advances in exploration and development technologies.
Recommendation 10: Establish formal mechanisms for regular engagement with external parties and key stakeholders to identify and prioritize future ERP activities and to determine the impacts of ERP products and research.
An internal advisory board is currently responsible for establishing most ERP priorities with little feedback from product consumers or external subject matter experts. The ERP has no formal mechanisms for stakeholder identification and interaction, nor does it have formal mechanisms for identifying stakeholder needs or ERP product impacts. Formal and regular engagement with ERP stakeholders at intervals agreed upon through deliberation with them would complement input from the internal advisory board and allow the program to more efficiently identify and respond to consumer needs. The ERP needs to quantify through metrics who uses its products and how, the impacts of those products, and consumer satisfaction with them. Regular, formalized engagement with stakeholders could help the ERP establish program priorities; identify emerging issues that affect the accessible energy resource inventory; review ERP program competencies; and identify new geologic energy resources and assessment and development methodologies that would
benefit from ERP attention. Opportunities to leverage resources and collaborate on research might also be revealed.
Formal engagement might be pursued by establishing an external advisory board of representatives from federal- and state-level entities and nongovernmental organizations to complement internal advisory board efforts. Regular formal interaction with stakeholders would require the ERP to establish a working culture that encourages and is receptive to constructive feedback.
Recommendation 11: Leverage and partner with other USGS units, other federal and state agencies, and other domestic and international organizations to more efficiently achieve the ERP mission.
The ERP methane hydrates research area is an excellent example of coordinated research that leverages expertise and resources of various external entities to advance the general state of knowledge. Following similar patterns, other ERP research areas could improve their respective breadths and reaches while increasing efficiency. For instance, the ERP could establish partnerships and combine resources with state agencies that have rich data sets and sample archives. The ERP has also benefited greatly from past research support—for example, when the ERP was in need of focused or short-duration deep research expertise to complement that within the program. Developing and leveraging such relationships deepens the ERP knowledge base, creates potential pathways for personnel recruitment, and can inform the direction and increase the visibility of ERP products. In all its collaborative efforts, however, the ERP needs to preserve its reputation for objectivity and neutrality so that it may continue to be a trusted source of information.
ERP priorities need constantly be checked in consideration of the end goals of energy resource management: safe, responsible, and productive energy development that best serves the needs of the nation both now and in the future. The next-generation resource assessments will provide the data to support full-lifecycle and full-systems analyses by ERP product consumers and include information about the quality, quantity, and recoverability of multiple commodities, as well as spatial information related to production needs and the impacts on infrastructure and the environment. Future assessments will support scenario analyses by product consumers so that potential lifecycle economic and environmental impacts of energy development options might be explored.
The ERP needs to regularly review and update its activities in response to the evolution of technology and available based on data so that the program may become more flexible and responsive to changing information needs. Modernized data management, discovery, and relentless improvement of assessment approaches need to be the mainstay of an ERP culture of scientific excellence. The program will need to respond to a suite of interdisciplinary issues using lifecycle and systems perspectives in ways not applied by the program in the past. The ERP is a scientific organization, but by staying aware of the dynamic market forces that change resource prices, the demand for different geologically
based energy resources, and the needs of its product consumers, it will be better prepared to bring the scientific information together in formats most useful for decision making.