Since peaking at 3.4 million barrels of oil a day in 2004, Mexico’s oil industry has been in a steady decline and now sits at about half that production. A new partnership with The University of Texas at Austin has plans to help reverse that trajectory by leveraging UT’s extensive expertise to discover new fields and extend the life of mature oil fields in Mexico.
The administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador wants to overhaul the oil and gas industry and has set the ambitious goal of building crude oil production to at least 2.6 million barrels per day by the end of the administration. Mexico looked all over the world for a partner to help with this monumental task, one that could bring expertise for all issues concerning hydrocarbon production both onshore and offshore. In partnering with UT, it found the perfect choice right next door.
The partnership — called the Advanced Resource Recovery in Mexico (ARRM) project — is run by the Mexican Institute of Petroleum and UT and managed by the Jackson School of Geosciences’ Bureau of Economic Geology. Its goal is to improve and enhance oil recovery from existing and mature fields, to better understand regional oil plays onshore and offshore, and to advance innovative solutions for tight oil reservoirs. The project is still being finalized, but the budget will be hundreds of millions of Mexican pesos (tens of millions of U.S. dollars).
Once the plan is launched, researchers from the Jackson School, the Cockrell School of Engineering and other units throughout the university will work with colleagues at the Mexican Institute of Petroleum to conduct research that will increase Mexico’s hydrocarbon production, reduce costs and improve recovery efficiency. The team will focus on addressing short-term opportunities with existing technology and developing game-changing technologies and approaches for the longer term.
Mexico’s choice to tap oil and gas expertise from UT is rooted in a long history. The two have strong ties in Earth sciences and hydrocarbon energy issues that can be traced back for more than 100 years. In 1905, William Battle Phillips, director of the University of Texas Mining Survey, published a geological characterization of the coal beds in Chihuahua, Mexico. Four years later, in 1909, Phillips would become the first director of the newly created University of Texas Bureau of Economic Geology. Decades later, Peter Flawn — former UT president, professor of geological sciences and director of the Bureau of Economic Geology — would forge strong ties to Mexico during his years of research in the country. He even joined the faculty of the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s (UNAM) Institute of Geology in 1964.
Since then, UT geologists and petroleum engineers have been involved in important research collaborations with Mexican counterparts. Among the projects UT scientists have worked on are geological assessments for hydrocarbon resources in Mexico’s important Chicontepec and Tampico- Misantla basins, integrated reservoir characterization of the Poza Rica Field, research on the geologic framework of the Laguna Madre-Tuxpan area, studies of the Salina del Bravo region, and a host of projects looking at the deep-water Gulf of Mexico. UT has also long played a crucial role in educating professionals and leaders in the Mexican oil and gas industry.
In recent years, the relationship led to The University of Texas at Austin- Mexico Initiative, an effort pushed by UT President Gregory L. Fenves to further develop interdisciplinary collaboration with Mexican educational and scientific organizations to enhance their mutual mission in education and scientific research. The initiative now has a permanent office on the UNAM campus in Mexico City.
This history offered a compelling backdrop over the two years during which the countries discussed the partnership, said Jay Kipper, the associate director of the bureau. But it was the expertise that UT brought to the table that really sealed the deal, he said.
“It’s a cross-university engagement,” he said. “This is really about the power of all the different pieces of The University of Texas.” In the next eight pages, you will see highlights of those pieces that make UT a unique institution and one that is changing the future of hydrocarbons.
Nestled in the center of the Lone Star State, The University of Texas at Austin boasts the No. 1 Geology program and the No. 1 Petroleum Engineering program in the country, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report. The Jackson School, in addition to its top geology program, is ranked No. 7 in Earth Sciences (No. 3 among public universities) and No. 7 in Geophysics and Seismology (No. 2 among public universities). These top rankings are due to the collective power of its three world-class units — the Bureau of Economic Geology, the Department of Geological Sciences and the Institute for Geophysics. Combined with the prowess of the No. 1-ranked Hildebrand Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering and a bevy of other top-ranked programs at the UT Cockrell School of Engineering, these programs build a foundation for unmatched education and research in hydrocarbon issues.
No development has redefined the energy landscape in recent years as much as advances in unconventional resources. Hydraulic fracturing has enabled dramatic increases in the production of oil and gas from shale and placed the United States, particularly Texas, once again at the center of the energy universe.
George Mitchell is, of course, credited as the pioneer of the shale revolution. But UT had a hand in it from the beginning. Nicholas Steinsberger, a young petroleum engineer who graduated from UT in 1987, helped perfect the method in the late 1990s and applied it in the field for Mitchell.
UT experts, particularly at the Hildebrand Department and the Bureau of Economic Geology, have been heavily involved ever since and are leading innovative and interdisciplinary research to help improve the safety and efficiency of unconventional methods of producing oil and natural gas.
The bureau, for instance, has performed two comprehensive analyses on four of the largest shale plays in the U.S. — the Barnett, Fayetteville, Haynesville and Marcellus — and is currently finishing studies on the oil-prone Bakken and Eagle Ford. The most recent analysis showed that technological advances since 2012 have increased the amount of recoverable gas by 20 percent. These interdisciplinary studies integrate engineering, geology and economics, and they are the most comprehensive reports on unconventional resources publicly available.
The bureau also has deep expertise in the energy, environmental and economic implications of oil and natural gas production in the Permian Basin, one of the most prolific oil and gas provinces in the world.
Since 2015, students at UT have had the opportunity to learn oil and gas operations in what’s thought to be the first-of-its-kind drilling simulator in a university setting. The 3D simulator, operated by the Hildebrand Department, gives students a feel for real-world drilling operations in a virtual environment. Students and scientists at UT also have access to the only university-run hydrocarbon distillation units. The facility, operated by the UT Separations Research Program at the James R. Fair Process Science and Technology Center, facilitates cutting-edge experiments on new separations technologies and methods. Technologies are being developed in collaboration with industry partners such as ExxonMobil, Phillips 66, Emerson Automation Solutions, Shell and Eastman.
In addition, there are a host of state-of- the-art labs on UT’s campus that are used for hydrocarbon research. Jackson School facilities include labs for geochemistry, mass spectrometry, thermo- and geochronology and mineral physics. The school also boasts a morphodynamics lab, a highresolution X-ray computed tomography facility, an applied geodynamics laboratory dedicated to producing innovative concepts in salt tectonics, facilities that specialize in seafloor mapping and much more.
See the full list at: www.jsg.utexas.edu/research/facilities.
UT researchers have been heavily involved for years in figuring out how to improve and maximize production from mature fields through a range of methods under the umbrella of enhanced oil recovery (EOR). The practice involves injecting a variety of substances into an oil well to increase pressure and reduce the viscosity of the remaining oil. This can involve the use of chemicals, low-salinity water, microbes, miscible gas and steam, as well as a variety of novel and hybrid methods such as adding steam with solvents and combining gas and chemicals (low tension gas/foam flooding).
Carbon dioxide is also commonly used in EOR. In recent years, researchers have worked to combine EOR with carbon storage, using the combination as a method to boost oil production and trap carbon dioxide underground where the greenhouse gas cannot contribute to climate change. One great example is the Petra Nova project, which is removing carbon dioxide from a unit of the W.A. Parish power plant near Houston and piping it some 80 miles to the southwest to the West Ranch oil field, where it displaces oil as it is injected underground. The field’s increased oil production is a key part of making the $1 billion project economically viable, with the profit from the enhanced oil recovery paying for the carbon capture system. The job of monitoring the carbon dioxide deep underground falls to the bureau’s Gulf Coast Carbon Center.
Methane hydrate is a mysterious but ubiquitous substance created under high pressure and low temperatures when methane molecules are trapped in a cage-like lattice of water molecules. The ice-like substance is incredibly energy-dense and found in abundance in many parts of the world under Arctic permafrost, and on and under the seafloor. The hydrates are thought to be an energy source of the future, particularly for resource-poor countries.
Researchers at the Jackson School are leading an $80 million national effort funded by the U.S. Department of Energy to study the substance. In 2017, researchers with the Jackson School’s Institute for Geophysics and Department of Geological Sciences led a drilling mission to retrieve samples from beneath the seafloor and return them to the surface under the same pressure and temperature conditions in which the hydrates were formed. The Jackson School houses one of the few labs in the world capable of studying and storing the volatile substance. Researchers have been conducting a battery of tests on the samples, including X-ray and CT scans and tests that determine the permeability of the material, quantity and saturation of the methane, and the moisture, density and particle-size distribution of the material. Another mission to retrieve more samples and to test innovations to the drilling technology is scheduled for 2022.
Perhaps no program at UT better demonstrates the economic value of applied research and industry collaboration than the bureaumanaged State of Texas Advanced Resource Recovery (STARR) program. Founded in 1996, STARR conducts geologic research that increases the production and profitability of oil and gas in the state of Texas. During the past 20 years, STARR has completed or is currently working on more than 60 reservoir characterization field studies and more than 15 regional studies with over 50 Texas oil and gas operators. Since its inception, STARR has raised $515.6 million in severance tax revenues, offsetting the program’s $39.8 million in state funding.
There are numerous other examples of UT’s close working relationship with the oil and gas industry. For instance, the Cockrell School’s Center for Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering works with more than 50 corporate partners and numerous federal and state funding agencies to conduct more than $13.7 million in research per year, more than any other petroleum engineering department in the country. Research topics include drilling and completions,
enhanced oil recovery, formation evaluation, integrated reservoir characterization, hydraulic fracturing and reservoir geomechanics, reservoir engineering and reservoir simulation.
The Gulf Coast Carbon Center (GCCC) has long had a reputation as a leader in the field of carbon capture and storage. In addition to its role in the Petra Nova project, it is leading a regional partnership funded by a $4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to explore how carbon dioxide emitted from industrial facilities along the Gulf Coast can be safely stored in geological formations under the Gulf of Mexico.
The GCCC also has a major international presence. It recently partnered with two Caribbean universities on the dual-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago to create a new clean industry that will store greenhouse gasses underground and eliminate the country’s contribution to human-induced climate change. On the other side of the world, the carbon center was brought in by the U.S. Department of Energy to work with the Japanese government on the Tomakomai site in northern Japan, a large-scale test project that stores carbon from a nearby refinery under the seafloor.
Beyond the GCCC, researchers with the Jackson School’s Department of Geological Sciences and Institute for Geophysics have shown that injecting air and carbon dioxide into methane hydrate deposits buried beneath the Gulf of Mexico could unlock vast natural gas energy resources while storing carbon dioxide underground. The Cockrell School of Engineering also has robust research into carbon storage and played a major part in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Center for Frontiers of Subsurface Energy Security, a joint carbon storage program led by UT.
Knowing what’s happening under the surface of the Earth is vital when it comes to exploring for and producing energy resources. Researchers at UT are using nanotechnology to better illuminate the subsurface to better understand a range of issues. One of the most notable successes is tiny, computerized sensors developed by the bureau-led Advanced Energy Consortium (AEC) that are sophisticated enough to report downhole temperatures and pressures under real-world conditions. The AEC has also developed contrast agents to help map fracture patterns, fluid flow and the size of reservoirs, as well as delivery systems to transport various chemicals within tiny capsules that open and release their cargoes under pre-determined conditions, such as higher temperatures. The sensors and contrast agents are currently being used and tested by member companies and institutions in the field
Engineers at the Hildebrand Department also conduct significant research on nanotechnology, including a pioneering method for separating water from oil using specially coated magnetic nanoparticles.
The Gulf of Mexico continues to be one of the world’s major hydrocarbon producing regions. Researchers from throughout the Jackson School of Geosciences have a long history of studying and gathering vital data from the Gulf. Projects include the Gulf Basin Depositional Synthesis Project within the Institute for Geophysics. This initiative is an ongoing, industry-supported, comprehensive synthesis of the geology of the Gulf’s deep basin fill. Researchers with the Bureau of Economic Geology and the Department of Geological Sciences also have major scientific projects in the region important to the hydrocarbon industry.
Energy and water are interconnected at all levels. Among the connections: It takes water to produce most forms of energy, and energy is required for a sustainable supply of clean water; energy production can potentially contaminate water supplies; and the water produced as a byproduct by some forms of energy production can potentially cause seismic activity when injected underground for disposal. UT is conducting cutting-edge research in all aspects of the energy-water nexus. The Cockrell School of Engineering and the Jackson School’s Bureau of Economic Geology and Department of Geological Sciences have strong programs in these areas.
Great examples of recent research include a series of studies from the bureau that looked at methane present in water wells outside of Fort Worth. Researchers found that the methane migrated naturally to wells from the relatively shallow Strawn formations, not from the Barnett Shale, where natural gas production and hydraulic fracturing are occurring. Other water research from the bureau includes a study that looked into the potential to reuse produced water in the Permian Basin and a study that examined the link between deep injection of produced water and induced seismic activity.
A tried and true method of knowing what’s happening under the Earth’s surface is studying cores, cuttings and other geological specimens. The Bureau of Economic Geology, which also serves as the State Geological Survey of Texas, has three core repositories that contain more than 2 million boxes of geological material, the largest collection in the U.S. These geological specimens hold a wealth of knowledge about potential hydrocarbon resources all over the world. Specimens in the bureau’s collections have been the starting point for discovering some of the most prolific oil and gas fields in existence, including the Eagle Ford Shale, one of the most prolific unconventional plays in the United States.
One of the more concerning aspects of the recent ramp-up in oil and gas activity in the United States has been
the increase in seismic activity that has come along with it. The Bureau of Economic Geology, with the support of the state of Texas, has installed one of the most advanced state-run seismic monitoring systems in the country to track earthquakes. The seismic monitoring system, called TexNet, is operated in parallel with the Center for Integrated Seismicity Research (CISR), a multidisciplinary research effort that is tracking and studying natural and induced earthquakes in Texas. CISR also includes scientists from the Cockrell School of Engineering, the Institute for Geophysics and from other Texas universities.
The monitoring and research by TexNet and CISR are vital parts of ensuring that oil and gas operations can work safely and sustainably in Texas. For instance, a recent study from CISR has found that the majority of faults underlying the Fort Worth Basin are sensitive to changes in stress that could cause them to slip. The study revealed that the faults are relatively stable if left undisturbed, but that wastewater injection significantly increases their potential to slip if not managed properly. For more information on TexNet and to view the interactive webpage, go to www.beg.utexas.edu/texnet.
UT is an active participant in providing training for professionals working in the oil and gas industry with its Petroleum Extension (PETEX) and TOPCORP programs. PETEX, a unit of the Cockrell School, has been involved in industry training since 1944. It is headquartered at the university’s J.J. Pickle Research Campus in Austin and also has training centers in Houston and Odessa. TOPCORP is an educational consortium of UT, The Pennsylvania State University and the Colorado School of Mines. Through funding and in-kind support, the program is offered at no cost to many federal and state regulatory agencies. The Cockrell School — along with Texas A&M University and the University of Houston — is also a partner in the Ocean Energy Safety Institute created by the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. The institute provides a forum for dialogue, shared learning and cooperative research in offshore-related technologies and activities that help ensure environmentally safe and responsible offshore operations.
Beyond its collection of high-powered geosciences and engineering expertise, UT has a host of other resources that benefit energy enterprise and research. For example, UT’s Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) designs and operates some of the planet’s most powerful supercomputers — a must-have today when exploring and safely producing hydrocarbons involves processing massive data sets. Its latest system, Frontera, is the fifth-most-powerful supercomputer in the world, third-fastest in the U.S. and the largest at any U.S. university.
In addition, the highly rated University of Texas School of Law has a number of top faculty members and experts on energy law and offers a Master of Laws in Global Energy, International Arbitration & Environmental Law. It also publishes the only student-edited journal in the country focused on energy law. The McCombs School of Business boasts the No. 1 accounting program in the country and a collection of business- and finance-related energy expertise and programs matched by few institutions. These include the school’s Energy Certificate program and McCombs Master of Science in Energy Management. These schools come together to help support UT’s well-respected Kay Bailey Hutchison Center for Energy, Law & Business.
The Energy and Earth Resources Graduate Program (EER) is another unique energy offering at UT. This multidisciplinary master’s program, established in 1981, touches on all aspects of the energy business — from geosciences and engineering to management, finance and economics to policy and law. Students benefit by learning from expert faculty members across UT’s affiliated schools, which are the Jackson School of Geosciences, the McCombs School of Business, LBJ School of Public Affairs, Cockrell School of Engineering and the School of Law.
After finishing his undergraduate geophysics degree from the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 2017, Fernando Apango knew his next step was to UT.
“If you really want to pursue a career in oil and gas, this is the place to come,” he said. “It seemed like the right pathway to me.”
Apango was following the example of his friend Enrique Arce, who entered graduate school at UT only two years before. Both would study in UT’s multidisciplinary Energy and Earth Resources Graduate Program (EER), where students do research and specialize in areas that include renewable energy, water resources and minerals, as well as oil and gas. The program helped Apango expand his technical skills through classes at the Jackson School while learning finance from the McCombs School of Business and energy policy from the LBJ School of Public Affairs.
It wasn’t a coincidence the two friends chose to study at UT. Arce, Apango said, sold him hard on the experience, lauding UT for its top notch education and research and close ties to the industry in which he hoped to work. Two years later, with his master’s degree finished, Apango said he doesn’t regret his choice. He spent the summer working for Chevron, and he already has one solid job offer and a number of interviews set up.
Arce’s and Apango’s paths tracked even more closely at UT. Both worked and studied at the Jackson School’s Institute for Geophysics (UTIG) in the Gulf Basin Depositional Synthesis Program (GBDS). And both were able to use data provided by the Mexican National Hydrocarbon Commission in their work, which, for Apango, focused on finding an explanation for the lack of significant hydrocarbon accumulations in some prominent deep-water reservoirs in the southern Gulf of Mexico. The data arrangement is unique to UTIG. The friends are only the first and second students outside of Mexico allowed access to the data.
John Snedden, a UTIG senior research scientist who leads GBDS, said the agreements were forged through a long and close relationship between researchers at UT, particularly the Jackson School, and their counterparts in Mexico. Ultimately, he said, it was UT’s reputation as a top energy institution that helped seal the deal.
“We were able to present to them and show them our capabilities from both a research and education standpoint,” he said. “I think they appreciate what we bring to the table.”