Characterizing, quantifying, and understanding the nature of the nation’s geologic energy resource endowment are essential for national planning and economic vitality. Trusted and scientifically rigorous geologic energy resource assessments are, therefore, vital. As the only branch of a federal public agency dedicated to assessing geologic energy resources, the Energy Resources Program (ERP) is a critical component of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Department of the Interior. This energy resource assessment function is mandated in the original Organic Act of 1879,1 which established the USGS to inventory the geology and resources of the nation (see Chapter 1).
Given the rate of technology change, relevant responsiveness to its core mission requires flexibility on the part of the ERP: the program needs a nimbleness that allows rapid adjustments to its portfolio, improvements in its assessment approaches, and production of a suite of dynamic products. Changes in public policy, technology innovations in extraction and waste disposal, discoveries of environmental impacts, fundamental advances in geoscience, dynamic markets, and even global geopolitics influence the ERP’s priorities and information needs. And, for the sake of efficiency, the ERP needs to constantly determine which research best fits within the ERP mission and which is more effectively executed elsewhere.
Furthermore, the ERP needs to maintain a culture of scientific excellence that allows delivery of complete, accurate, and reproducible products that are most useful to support decision making in the public and private domains. As much as possible, and given the proprietary nature of some data used in assessments, the ERP needs to rely on source data rather secondary literature or other sources, to release as much of the data as possible, and to develop and release intermediate data products (e.g., aggregated data at the level of assessment units). These good scientific practices will increase confidence in and reproducibility of the data.
Chapter 2 identified a set of energy-related challenges in the context of the current and projected energy landscape in the United States:
- Maintaining a robust understanding of the national resource inventory and its associated uncertainties;
- Exploring and developing geologic energy resources in an environmentally and socially responsible manner;
- Overcoming technical and economic barriers to new resource development processes; and
- Adapting to variable power-generation sources (e.g., wind and solar) and related energy storage.
These challenges are not completely distinct: one cannot, for example, develop a geologic energy resource responsibly (challenge #2) without a robust understanding of its quantity, location, and geologic disposition (challenge #1), without overcoming technical and economic barriers to technology development (challenge #3), or without consideration of how to manage the resource after development (challenge #4). Recommendations in this chapter—presented in bold type—identify how ERP research, data, and products need to evolve over the next 10-15 years2 so that the program may provide timely and scientifically rigorous information to support needed innovation. Individual recommendations do not respond to the individual challenges described above, but collectively address how ERP activities need to evolve.
The committee developed its consensus recommendations in consideration of the constantly changing national and global energy landscape and based on input from consumers of ERP products. The recommendations have been synthesized from the observations and conclusions presented throughout this report and are organized into three distinct categories:
- Priorities for aligning ERP activities and its research portfolio with emerging energy challenges (Recommendations 1-4).
- The interdependence of energy resource development with other resources and with economics at different scales (Recommendations 5-7).
- Improvements and adjustments in ERP research approaches that will enhance the value and relevance of ERP products (Recommendations 8-11).
The committee begins with consideration of ERP portfolio priorities, describes a new paradigm for regional assessments and product delivery, and provides guidance for the program so that it remains relevant and responsive.
Discussion of ERP operational strategies is beyond the scope of this report. This chapter, however, does identify certain operational processes that could improve the ERP’s ability to recognize and incorporate the latest science and technology into their research and products; its ability to incorporate information into products in ways most meaningful to consumers; and its ability to consider how elements of the geologic system are interrelated and behave in the larger setting. Similarly, the committee was not asked to consider budget or management practices within the ERP or the USGS more broadly. The costs and benefits of implementing these recommendations will need to be assessed by the program.
The recommendations in this chapter guide the development of a future ERP that is most relevant for its stakeholders. The recommendations complement each other and their implementation will be most effective if executed together and continuously. The recommendations, therefore, are not listed in any priority order, but some recommendations might be implemented sooner than others given opportunity or availability of program resources. In those cases, their implementation will need to be accomplished in ways to accommodate the implementation of the others.
2 The 10- to 15-year is designated by the statement of task provided to the committee.
The rapid changes in energy development technologies for existing and emerging energy resources indicates the next 10-15-year planning period (chosen by the ERP when requesting this report) could be exciting; 10-15 years allows both the possibility for unpredicted outcomes and opportunities for unexpected gains. But not keeping pace with advances that are made will leave the program out-of-date and struggling to find resources. It is important for the ERP to focus on its mission while being cognizant that momentum within the program could put it at risk of stagnation. The program needs to maintain an appropriately balanced portfolio to respond to current and emerging issues. Assessment objectives and methodologies, for example, need to be examined and refined as appropriate to make certain their implementation reduces uncertainties and yields the most useful results.
ERP Mission Focus
Recommendation 1: Focus new and continuing activities on geologic energy resources as consistent with the ERP mission and the information needs of the nation.
Chapters 3, 4, and 5 of this report describe existing and emerging energy resource priorities that the ERP, given its strong geoscience orientation, is positioned to address. The ERP needs to prioritize its activities based on constant consideration of the current and emerging energy resource needs; the form and function of ERP products most useful to its stakeholders; and the strengths and competencies of the program. For example, oil and gas resource assessments—and specifically continuous (unconventional) oil and gas assessments—will continue to be of primary importance. Conversely, the ERP needs to remain aware of its core competencies and consider the appropriateness of future expenditures on activities unrelated to geologic energy resources (e.g., the development of the wind turbine locational database), or on those less responsive to consumer information needs. That said, ERP core competencies do need to evolve in response to the constantly evolving domestic and international energy mix and the nation’s changing information needs.
Priority Portfolio Areas
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 oil and gas exploration and development (i.e., with high-water-volume hydraulic fracturing) will dominate the energy sector over the next 10-15 years (see Chapters 2 and 5) and thus will need to remain a high priority for the ERP. Technological
developments in the United States have stimulated a revolution in domestic natural gas and oil production, with national and global impacts. Natural gas contributes greatly to the domestic energy supply and likely will do so for the next 10-15 years. The rapid expansion of continuous oil and gas development has been accompanied by evolving production practices. The increased use of water for hydraulic fracturing in oil and gas development, for example, calls for better understanding of the water resources available for development, the characterization of those waters after development, and the environmental impacts of those waters when treated and released or disposed of.
Emerging geologically based energy resources or geologic issues related to the nation’s energy mix that require the attention and expertise of the ERP to address are those associated with geothermal energy, methane hydrates, and opportunities for subsurface energy storage. The near-term contributions for future energy sources such as methane hydrates, renewables, and nuclear power are less predictable given evolving government policies and regulations and on technological advances that are still in development. The next sections summarize priorities related to continuous oil and gas, produced water, geothermal energy, hydrates, and subsurface energy storage.
Continuous (Unconventional) Oil and Gas
The United States will become a net energy exporter within 10 years (see Chapter 2), and for the first time since the 1950s. Challenges associated with developing continuous oil and gas resources include managing the environmental impacts (e.g., land-use issues, produced water disposal, induced seismicity, and possible contamination issues) and characterizing the subsurface to facilitate appropriate development approaches and accurate resource assessment. Priorities for the next 10-15 years include
- Updating resource assessments and methodologies more regularly at intervals that keep pace with technology advancements designed to improve resource recovery. The ERP needs to remain aware of all new methodologies (including those developed outside of the ERP) and apply them when appropriate.
- Compiling more raw and aggregated data and data-source information developed by states and other organizations to support ERP assessments and research. Including these compilations in ERP products allows greater transparency for ERP stakeholders, increases stakeholder confidence in ERP products, and increases ERP product usefulness.
- Increasing focus on data compilation related to impacts of resource development such as produced water volumes and rates (described in detail in the later section on produced waters and the text supporting Recommendation 4).
- Releasing assessments and intermediate data products (e.g., aggregated information for assessment units within reservoir units) in a timely manner so that ERP products are relevant at the time of release.
Produced Water: Production and Disposal
Projections for continuous (unconventional) oil and gas development and conventional production stimulation activities, along with a trend toward developing formations with higher water-oil ratios, lead to expectations of continued large volumes of produced water. Subsurface disposal of produced water and its interactions with a formation’s matrix, fluids, fractures, and faults are expected to be longer term (e.g., over several years) than in the past and may be associated with potentially adverse consequences (e.g., induced seismicity). The volumes of water needed and produced are much greater as is the spatial scale of production. The chemistry of produced waters are also more varied and complex. Critical research needs related to produced water that will support potential management strategies include understanding historical variability in produced water quantity and quality; anticipating future volumes of produced water; and characterizing the disposal capacity of rock units for produced water to evaluate potential adverse impacts of disposal.
The strong background of the ERP in geochemical and hydrochemical analyses, combined with the program’s capacity for understanding subsurface systems, makes the ERP ideally suited to conduct analytical research on produced waters (including in conjunction with the USGS Water Mission area). Priority research includes that on the provenance of produced waters (e.g., how much is injected versus naturally found in geologic formations), the importance of flowback water in continuous reservoirs, and effects of water-rock interactions on produced water chemistry. If the ERP does not conduct such research, it may be difficult to make policy decisions regarding management of large volumes of produced water.
In addition to research, a priority for the ERP is to update and expand the existing ERP produced water database to include more data associated with continuous resources. Specifically, basic chemical analyses—conducted by the ERP and others—from a broad range of sedimentary basins needs to be included, as well as more comprehensive chemical analyses for representative subsets of these basins to support improved characterization of potential toxicity and regional-scale patterns in water composition.
Although geothermal energy is a relatively small contributor to the nation’s energy mix, the geothermal energy potential of the United States is substantial, with the added advantage that geothermal energy is a renewable resource that provides baseload energy. To develop geothermal energy resources and reduce exploration and development risk, advances in subsurface exploration strategies and engineering technologies are required. This, in turn, necessitates access to appropriate geoscientific data sets that support detailed characterization of the subsurface and lead to step-change advances in the conceptual understanding of geothermal systems. The locations and quality of potential available water resources to support future engineered geothermal systems (EGS) projects is included in the data needed. Currently, no single agency is responsible for updating databases with key geothermal data (e.g., sub-surface temperatures, heat flow, fluid chemistry and rock properties); there is the opportunity for ERP to serve in this capacity.
The ERP also needs to be a leader in updating and improving methods for regional and national-scale geothermal resource assessments. Using these methodologies, the ERP might then maintain up-to-date assessments of the national geothermal resource inventory (for both conventional and EGS resources). These are high-priority needs, and the ERP is suited to meet them. Groups such as the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Geothermal Technologies Office would be among the beneficiaries of the outcomes of this work and may offer opportunities to leverage resources.
The nation’s methane hydrate accumulations are estimated to exceed the volume of all known conventional gas resources, and the ERP is contributing in important ways to determine the feasibility of energy production from them. The potential opportunities represented by methane hydrates, analyses of lifecycle consequences, and the environmental issues surrounding significant exploitation of this energy asset warrant continued attention at this time. 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 importance of hydrates to the nation’s future energy mix, however, is highly uncertain, given expected availability and reliance on natural gas and given the uncertainty regarding when responsible hydrate production technologies will be feasible.
Whereas the ERP’s work in this area is important and appropriate now, the committee recommends the program regularly and realistically assess the feasibility and likelihood of responsible development of methane hydrates, as well as the information needs associated with that development, to determine if and how priorities in this area should be realigned. If production technologies being developed prove infeasible or there is a loss of interest in methane hydrates, then methane hydrates assessments in the future may not be needed. Conversely, if hydrates production technologies prove feasible, the energy outlook for the nation may drastically change. The ERP might need to provide more detailed resource assessments, to provide information that allows comparison of different sources of natural gas, or to answer other geologic questions raised as a result new production technologies that cannot be predicted at present.
Subsurface Energy Storage
Energy storage is increasingly important as society adapts to variable sources of energy for power generation (e.g., wind and solar, energy) from which energy might be stored in the subsurface by means of, for example, compressed air energy storage (CAES). Matching energy supply and demand for the nation’s electricity grid when excess power is being generated requires innovative approaches such as CAES and other energy storage mechanisms. As discussed in Chapter 5, CAES and underground natural gas storage are two subsurface storage options for which the ERP might contribute vital expertise in
subsurface geologic characterization and energy resource assessment. Assessing the storage potential for various basins in the United States could become a new and strategically important priority for the ERP. The ERP might conduct such assessments in collaboration with the DOE and other partners.
Maintaining Strategic Capabilities while Responding to Information Needs
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.
As the nation’s energy mix evolves, the need for information about any given resource may wax and wane, or new types of information may be necessary. To remain relevant to its stakeholders, the ERP will need to adjust the emphasis of its products in response to those information needs. Regular evaluation of its portfolio, assessment methodologies, and products in light of projected energy trends and the needs of ERP product consumers is necessary. The results of those evaluations could be used when deciding how its portfolio, assessments, and products might evolve (or possibly be discontinued), or responsibilities be shifted. As discussed in Chapter 2, conventional oil and gas, uranium, and coal are important components of the U.S. energy resource mix, but given that when and how those resources are developed will depend on a changes in technologies and market and regulatory conditions, it is difficult to quantify their contributions to the future energy mix. The ERP needs to retain core skills in these areas to ensure that it can respond to future needs of the nation. Priority emphasis for conventional oil and gas, uranium, coal, and emerging energy resources are described in the next sections.
Conventional Oil and Gas
In response to mandates in the Energy Policy Conservation Act of 20003 and its 2005 update, the ERP conducts U.S. and global conventional assessments of oil and gas resources on a rolling three-year schedule. The ERP prioritizes U.S. regions where recent discoveries have triggered reevaluation of recoverable resources (e.g., Alaska; Parshall and Zborowski, 2018). The decision to prioritize basins in the United States where there have been new discoveries is appropriate, as previously discovered U.S. conventional oil and gas resources are generally well characterized and changes resulting from routine updates are likely to be modest. Limiting its U.S. conventional focus to targeted areas also gives the ERP opportunities to direct its capabilities to other assessment and research efforts, such as those described in Recommendation 2.
Global conventional resources are less well characterized, particularly in emerging markets with recent discoveries (e.g., East Africa) or new exploration (e.g., the circumArctic). Understanding the abundance and distribution of these resources continues to be
3 P.L.106-469 §604.
critical for making informed decisions about U.S. energy security, even as U.S. energy self-sufficiency increases. As is the case with domestic conventional oil and gas assessments, de-emphasizing routine updates of existing assessments and focusing on important new discoveries or other changes that might affect development of the global resource portfolio will be important for the ERP. It must be prepared to provide rapid and targeted information necessary to inform U.S. decisions regarding the global resource portfolio.
Despite the major decrease in demand precipitated by the low natural gas prices, coal remains a critical part of the domestic energy mix. Given that the traditional coal resource base is well characterized, the ERP needs new assessment strategies to make those assessments more relevant. For example, resource assessment activities might focus on strategic coal resources with specific applications, such as metallurgy, coal gasification, and extraction of rare-earth elements. Development of existing databases on resource occurrence should continue to capture new subsurface data generated by coalbed methane development. In addition, expanding the COALQUAL database,4 which contains an essential set of coal quality parameters used to determine utility, should continue so that coal can be characterized most effectively and so that targeted assessments can move forward.
The ERP has the basic data and expertise useful to virtually all stakeholders about potential impacts and remedial actions associated with the tangible environmental impacts of coal mining, coal utilization, and coalbed methane development. ERP data and products are needed to inform the characterization and remediation of the impacts of these activities, and a new strategy balancing resource assessment with an increasing need for characterizing environmental impacts and the associated remediation efforts is required. An awareness of global developments that may affect coal demand also needs to be maintained to provide a realistic understanding of the role of U.S. and foreign coal resources.
Although prospects for growth in nuclear generating capacity in the United States have waned, nuclear power still accounts for about 20% of national electricity generation and 60% of the nation’s carbon-free electricity generation. ERP uranium resource assessments are the sole source of public information on quantities and grades of uranium deposits in the country developed using the most modern methods. ERP publications and data are unique sources of information on the national endowment of this strategic metal and on the potential environmental impacts of developing these resources. U.S. utilities import approximately 90% of their uranium, but future decisions may be made that could lead to the need for increased domestic production and, in turn, increased stakeholder demand for
ERP uranium products. The ERP should therefore continue its efforts to assess national uranium resources using the methodology it has developed through international collaboration.
In addition to resource assessment, ERP geochemical studies of groundwater-uranium interactions inform stakeholders on potential solution mining impacts and remediation processes. The research, with further refinement, could contribute to the development of the regulatory framework for solution mining, the remediation of legacy uranium mines and tailings, as well as the siting of radioactive waste disposal sites. As a result, the ERP needs to continue with the current balance of assessment and environmental work in uranium.
Emerging Geologic Resources
Long-term energy resources at early stages of recognition or rediscovery might include, for example, oil shale or by-passed residual oil zones that could be targeted for new recovery techniques. But, it is difficult to evaluate or anticipate which emerging resources are appropriate for ERP focus and efforts. As is true for other ERP activities, the ERP needs to remain aware of research and technologies related to new or renewed geologic energy resources, and regular input from the program’s stakeholders will assist the ERP (see Recommendations 10 and 11).
Incorporating Environmental Impacts Data
Recommendation 4: Compile and incorporate data related to environmental impacts of resource development into ERP products.
Geologic energy resource development may result in unacceptable environmental impacts if not conducted responsibly. Developing new energy resources will result in different impacts for industry. If energy assessments are to support public policy and economic planning, they must factor in environmental impacts. Furthermore, if those assessments are to be trusted sources of information, then they must be provided by an impartial and independent entity. To produce such assessments, the ERP could partner, for example, with the Ecosystems mission area of the USGS or with other agencies that would conduct research on the impacts of resource development on ecological, water, and air quality. The ERP could then incorporate the geospatially relevant work of those research results into ERP products to highlight the relationships between energy resources and environmental vulnerabilities to impacts. Such maps are commonly produced in the private sector, but results may be disparate or not readily available to others because of different mapping techniques. ERP stakeholders would benefit if the ERP developed and applied standardized mapping approaches.
Examples of information that could be incorporated into ERP products include
- Energy resource mapping overlaid with maps of biodiversity and endangered and threatened species to guide mining and energy-related activities;
- Impacts of energy development on water and air; and
- Spatially explicit impact maps of the location of source waters and the disposition of produced water.
The recommendations in this report represent a major shift in how resource assessments can be produced to aid decision processes. They direct the ERP to consider end goals in energy resource management: safe, responsible, and productive energy development that best serves the long-term needs of the nation. The next-generation resource assessments will provide the data to support full-lifecycle and full-systems analyses by ERP product consumers and will 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 over the lifecycle of development. Future assessments will support scenario analyses by product consumers so that potential lifecycle economic and environmental impacts of one choice over another may be weighed. Examples of how this has been accomplished on more limited bases are referenced in Chapter 5. The ERP and the USGS already undertake research relevant to lifecycle and system analyses and the next recommendations direct the ERP to bring all this work together in useful formats for ERP stakeholders.
Applying Lifecycle and Full-Systems Approaches
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.
As described in Chapter 5, the utility of future assessments will increase by moving beyond estimates of resource supply and by incorporating the full costs and impacts associated with energy exploration, development, transportation, waste production and disposal, and reclamation of developed lands. Applying integrated approaches to analysis will support longer-term energy planning with attention paid to competing demands for resources and various types of risk (e.g., economic and environmental). Lifecycle outcomes associated with geologically based resource development vary with geology and extraction techniques—which the ERP understands and about which it has data. The ERP, therefore, is uniquely positioned to support lifecycle analyses for the resources it assesses. The ERP needs to design and conduct its assessments and basic research in consideration of the planning necessary to best utilize energy reserves in consideration of competing interests.
With access to resource assessments that include lifecycle data, ERP consumers may be better informed about resource availability, environmental impacts, costs, and risk at all stages of resource development. They will be better able to discern among development technologies, land-use options, and waste disposal options those that are most cost-effective and environmentally responsible in the long term.
If the committee were asked to recommend research strategies for the ERP program based solely on today’s capacities and resources, the committee would likely conclude that it would not be practical to adopt lifecycle and systems approaches in the near future. The committee was asked, however, to consider future strategies based on the information needs of the nation. Implementation of this and recommendation 6 will not be simple. The recommendations represent new operational paradigms for the ERP and the USGS. A phased approach will likely be necessary for their implementation.
Quantifying Resources According to Quality and Recoverability
Recommendation 6: Improve assessments of geologic energy resources by quantifying resources according to quality and recoverability.
The ERP provides assessments of in-place geologic resources and the fraction of which that are technically recoverable, given today’s technologies. The value of ERP assessments to many of its stakeholders would increase substantially by including analysis layers with information about resource quality, economic recoverability, and information that would support the development of robust energy resource supply curves by others (see Box 3.2). Such information is required to reduce uncertainties in decision making and relate resource size to economic price under different market conditions, allowing decision makers to determine when and how to develop specific resources. Providing this information—using widely accepted standards for resource classification—would make assessments for conventional and continuous (unconventional) oil and gas, coal, and geothermal resources more useful. Assessments with this information might also inform decisions regarding geologic energy storage (e.g., CAES) and pumped hydroelectric energy and will provide information for the lifecycle and full system approaches advocated for in Recommendation 5.
Multi-Commodity and Multi-Reservoir Models
Recommendation 7: Emphasize the development of multi-commodity and multireservoir geologic models at regional and basin scales.
ERP reports typically focus on geologic controls for individual energy resources (e.g., structure, stratigraphy, and petroleum systems variables that control conventional and continuous [unconventional] oil and gas occurrences) published at different scales (e.g., from full-sedimentary basin analyses to individual stratigraphic units over sub-regions within a sedimentary basin; see Chapter 3). Chapter 2 describes the need for a robust and
accurate understanding of the nation’s geologic resource inventory, the recoverable quantities of all geologic energy resources, and the impacts of development. Given that many of the same geologic processes are common to many geologic resource types, and given the need to weigh the various impacts of different development choices, it is advantageous to integrate in the next generation of resources assessments the evaluation of resources by considering how processes are linked at the regional or basin scales. This is true for evaluating oil and gas, coal, and renewable resources as well as water volumes and distribution and the potential for subsurface energy or waste storage (described in Chapter 5 with examples of limited application provided). Future efforts by the ERP could involve combining regional data with numerical models to understand multi-commodity, basin-scale geologic energy resource inventories.
Some ERP reports include three-dimensional numerical models used to integrate key variables into a predictive framework (e.g., Anadarko Basin; Higley, 2014), while others are compilations of previous work and describe key variables independently (e.g., Appalachian Basin, 2014). As described in Chapter 3, the ERP has considered the relationships between multiple commodities in a region, but without analyzing the linked geologic processes of basin formation, basin fill, and fluid-rock interactions that collectively influence resource accumulation. Future ERP assessments might include information about linked processes relevant to the available resources. To provide accurate descriptions of all geologic energy resources in a given sedimentary basin or region, the ERP needs regularly to create geologic models that describe systematic interactions among geologic processes at a basin scale. This requires easily accessible, basin-scale geologic data with variables that reflect the key geologic constraints for a given resource type. Recommendation 8 describes the ERP’s potential role for compiling those data. The ERP might use numerical models as platforms to integrate those data and explore interactions among geologic processes to test hypotheses and improve predictions regarding links between different energy resources (e.g., distribution of continuous oil and gas accumulations relative to reservoirs suitable for underground gas storage). These integrated, basin-scale models might also support the full lifecycle and systems approaches advocated in Recommendation 5. It is not necessary for the ERP to do this work alone. It might conduct its work and provide the products to better support the work of others, or it might target collaborations with appropriate entities (see Recommendation 11) as a means to accomplish the efforts. Given the levels of effort to do this kind of work, it will become necessary for the ERP to set priorities based on consumer needs (i.e., Recommendation 10).
This section synthesizes recommendations related to the way in which the ERP might maintain and improve its products to be consistent with stakeholder needs and best inform decision making. They relate to data compilation and management, timeliness, obtaining input to help maintain the relevance of ERP activity, and leveraging with other entities to optimize the usefulness of ERP products.
Recommendation 8: Become the recognized custodian of national-scale, publicly available geologic energy resource data.
There is no source in the United States of consistent, national-scale, and publicly available geologic data to support geologic resource development, research, policy, or regulation. Many data are available through federal and state agencies and the private sector, but those data were collected for specific purposes and without consistency among them. This makes it difficult for any entity to apply these data for purposes other than their intended use, or for geographic regions beyond those in which the data were collected (geologic resources do not recognize political boundaries). The ERP now maintains some databases relevant to the development of geologic energy resources (e.g., geochemistry of source rocks, oil and gas, and produced waters). Stakeholders, however, do not always value those databases as comprehensive enough to meet their needs. Expanding ERP efforts to become the recognized public source of comprehensive information would be consistent with the ERP mission to provide reliable and impartial scientific information on geologic energy resources. The long-term goal (10-15 years, as defined by this study committee’s task) for the ERP would be to expand its current data compilation, archiving, and dissemination practices and establish itself as the national custodian and disseminator of energy-related geoscience data for the United States.
In the short and long terms, ERP priorities for developing or maintaining its databases to meet consumer needs include:
- collecting and compiling different types of data such as well log and analyses data, rock properties data, rock/fluid geochemistry data (including isotopes), and subsurface temperature and pressure data (which support improved, more rigorous resource assessment activities and facilitate the ERP when evaluating environmental impacts of resource development);
- making publicly available more raw and supporting data (e.g., the input data layers used in the assessments);
- increasing the transparency of data (e.g., by providing more information about their sources and generation methodologies) to reduce uncertainty, improve the usefulness of and stakeholder confidence in them, and to create less potential for misinterpretation;
- creating data sets that are more easily updated and regularly updating them. This includes incorporating flexibility into the databases so that new types of information that become available may be included;
- developing the appropriate data-storage systems and interoperable database architecture to support the efficient archiving, updating, and delivery of new and existing data; and
- increasing the ease of access to existing data through improved web-delivery mechanisms. This includes considering how scientific information is conveyed over social media platforms now and in the future.
Adopting this service role would facilitate the ability of the ERP, the USGS more broadly, other agencies, and ERP consumers to reduce uncertainty and adopt lifecycle and systems approaches to energy resource assessment and management (i.e., per Recommendations 4 through 7). Implementing this recommendation does not need to occur all at once, but it does need to be in cooperation with ERP product consumers. Analysis of the overall costs and benefits of creating new digitally linked, national-scale databases that can be rapidly updated, analyzed, and disseminated is warranted. The same needs are also true for other ERP products and publications: the ERP needs to develop and maintain a complete, searchable, updateable catalog of its output. The committee does not have the expertise to recommend specific architectural improvements that would enhance the efficacy of the ERP’s current data systems and information management processes. The topic deserves further exploration, however, by database architecture and data information and management experts external to the ERP.
Recommendation 9: Improve the timeliness of ERP products and related data.
The time the ERP takes to release complete resource assessments yields products that may be—or may be considered by consumers to be—outdated and therefore irrelevant. The ERP adopted the practice of releasing fact sheets so that assessment information is available to consumers as quickly possible. Fact sheets alone, however, are of limited utility without accompanying data and analyses, and the lag between the release of fact sheets and full assessment reports can be several years. Products such as assessments, regional-scale models (i.e., Recommendation 7), and databases need to be released in a more timely manner to reduce uncertainty about the information in them and increase product utility. Furthermore, they could be converted from the static products they are now to “living” or updatable products that could be continually updated with new data collected during development, current resource estimates, or changes in economic recoverability because of new technologies. Such changes will require changes in ERP product review and product release practices.
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.
It is vital for the ERP to identify its key stakeholders and, through formalized and ongoing dialog with them, determine metrics to evaluate how ERP data and products are used, levels of satisfaction with the products, and the impacts of ERP product use. At present, ERP priorities appear to be guided little by feedback from ERP product consumers or external subject matter experts. This stems from a lack of a formal, consistent, and
proactive mechanism for stakeholder identification and interaction. Creating such mechanisms and formalizing engagement would allow the ERP to identify consumer needs more quickly than occurs at present. In addition, ongoing interaction is needed for:
- identifying emerging issues that affect the accessible energy resource inventory;
- identifying new geologic energy resources as well as assessment and development methods to be investigated;
- identifying opportunities to leverage resources and collaborate on research;
- reviewing ERP methodologies and products;
- reviewing program competencies to make sure they are consistent with current and future needs; and
- establishing priorities for ERP activity.
Assessing product use could begin by tracking the number of page visits or downloads of various products from ERP websites. The ERP could then begin to acquire more advanced web-tracking algorithms (e.g., geographic location of downloads) and requiring product users to populate a brief information form about themselves prior to product download (e.g., describing intended use, current work sector, employer if appropriate). Providing digital object identifiers for ERP databases and compiling usage metrics might provide a way to track data accessibility. These types of metrics would allow the ERP to better understand its consumer base, identify with whom to engage on formal and informal bases, and provide the ERP with information regarding how best to track product impacts. Ultimately, fostering regular and formalized engagement with ERP stakeholders would help the ERP to better target its products, to develop program goals and objectives, and to identify potential supplemental funding sources.
The program might establish an external ERP advisory board consisting of representatives from federal and state entities and nongovernmental organizations. Information gathered through this board would complement guidance from ERP’s internal advisory board. Meeting with an external advisory board would provide the ERP with regular opportunities for face-to-face discussions with its stakeholders, which could result in a regular and formal source of fresh perspectives. Interaction needs to be ongoing, the frequency of which would need to be determined by all parties based on agreed upon objectives. Improved resource assessments and development of new ERP research projects and products might result. While some of this information could be obtained through informal channels, regular reporting and meetings of a formal review board may provide better tracking of ERP performance. A working culture that encourages and is receptive to constructive feedback will be required within the ERP.
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’s mission.
The ERP coordinates research with and leverages expertise and resources of various entities to advance the general state of knowledge regarding methane hydrates. Other research areas and program goals could also be advanced through similar arrangements and enhanced interaction and collaboration with federal agencies such as the DOE and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with state geologic surveys, and with academic institutions. The ERP could broaden its reach and increase efficiency by:
- Transferring responsibility for routine database maintenance. It may be possible to reduce overall costs if some activities, such as maintenance of databases that are not critical to ERP assessments, could be transferred or contracted to universities. A successful application of this model is the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency,5 maintained by North Carolina State University for the DOE.
- Partnering more with other USGS units to expand the breadth and depth of ERP products. The ERP has already demonstrated this approach to some extent with the Geothermal Resource Investigations Project and with contributions from multiple USGS units along with federal, state, academic, and industry collaborators. The ERP might likewise collaborate with the Earthquake Hazards Science Center for research related to induced seismicity, for example, and with its the Water mission area.
- Partnering more with other agencies to enhance complementary efforts. For example, the DOE has research and demonstration programs in geologic carbon dioxide sequestration, produced water, radioactive waste disposal, and other areas of interest to the ERP. Some state agencies have rich data sets and subsurface-sample archives. Establishing partnerships and formal collaborations with such groups may require policy or management changes at different levels, but could be mutually beneficial as a result of efficient use of combined resources.
- Managing extramural research programs. Utilizing extramural research expertise can be effective, especially when there are focused or short-term (i.e., months to 2-3 years) needs for deep research expertise. Examples of such programs include the EPA’s Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program or the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Desalination and Water Purification Research Program.
Developing such relationships could also serve to deepen the knowledge base that informs the direction of ERP products, to increase visibility of the ERP (and the USGS) activities, and has the potential to foster personnel recruitment pathways so that the ERP remains an important long-term resource. The ERP, however, should make every effort to remain separate and distinct from the private sector so as to remain and maintain the appearance of objectivity and neutrality.
Because energy is central to the economy and quality of life in the United States and the world, knowledge of geologic sources of energy and the environmental impacts associated with their development is a national priority. The ERP is a scientific agency, but its mission is to provide information to support complex real-world policy and management decisions, the impacts of which could affect the well-being and quality of life for generations. The world’s production and consumption of energy are constantly changing. As such, it is necessary for the ERP to position itself to anticipate information needs so that it contributes to the robust understanding of the national resource inventory and associated uncertainties. Program excellence will depend on program flexibility and the ability to prioritize activities based on new technologies, the identification of different types of resources, and discoveries of environmental impacts of energy development in light of dynamic market forces changes in energy demand. Whereas the traditional scientific protocols applied to date have been applied valuably to many of the problems addressed by the ERP, new protocols are needed that maintain scientific rigor while also accommodating real-world information needs.
The energy assessments that have been the traditional products of the ERP will be most useful if they reflect the needs of their consumers. Thus, the ERP needs to enhance its traditional assessments, which might have become routine (but should not be), with ongoing scientific and data technology advances. Discovery and relentless improvement of assessment approaches and modernized data management needs to be a mainstay of a culture of scientific excellence within the ERP. Indeed, national energy planning is best accomplished with an ERP that delivers timely, usable, and cutting-edge information on geologic energy resources and their development.
This page intentionally left blank.