Though it’s been in production for nearly 25 years, a huge natural gas field in Texas is now drawing the attention of major energy companies – but only after independent operations proved its worth.

Fort Worth, Texas, is built on top the Barnett Shale natural gas field, a field so vast that the U.S. Geological Service estimates it contains some 26 trillion cubic feet of yet-to-be-discovered natural gas. Estimates are that as much as 160 billion cubic feet of natural gas are in place per square mile in the Barnett Shale formation. The Barnett Shale field is the largest gas-producing field in Texas, covering some 15 counties in the northern part of the state. The core area comprises about 120,000 net acres that stretch north from Fort Worth to the western outskirts of Denton.

The field was undiscovered until 1981 when independent Mitchell Energy drilled the first well. The largest operator in the Barnett Shale field is Devon Energy Corporation, one of America’s largest and most successful independent oil and natural gas companies, headquartered in Oklahoma City. In January 2002, Devon completed the acquisition of the field’s pioneer, Mitchell Energy. Today, Devon operates more than 1,700 wells into the Barnett Shale core area, wells that today produce more than 550 million cubic feet of natural gas per day.

According to Brian Engel, manager of public affairs for Devon, the company’s success in large part derives from developing a light sand, water fracturing technology that permits efficient natural gas exploration from the field.

“The Barnett Shale formation,” says Mr. Engel, “has rightfully emerged as the largest natural gas field in Texas and one of the most important natural gas fields in the nation.”

Now that the independents have proven Barnett Shale to be hugely productive, major companies including ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, ConocoPhillips, BP and Shell have moved in to buy up production rights.

“It makes sense,” explained Tom Biracree, senior financial editor with John S. Herold Inc., an energy research and investment valuation firm based in Norwalk, Conn. “The industry is seeing a decided trend moving toward the development of on-shore natural gas resources in the continental U.S.”

Why? “It’s an economic market play,” explained Biracree. “With the price of natural gas at $10 per thousand cubic feet, not $2, it becomes very attractive for the major industry players to focus more attention on exploring for natural gas right here at home.”

Biracree continued, “Developing natural gas resources in the continental U.S. also permits the major companies to avoid the political risk of working overseas. The rules of the game don’t change here like they can when you’re dealing with a foreign government.”

Biracree noted that the industry is learning today how to explore deeper and extract more natural gas profitably from what, in years past, were considered riskier enterprises.

“We have growing expertise in the technologies which make extraction of natural gas from shale profitable,” said Biracree. “Besides, today the demand for natural gas is growing in the United States and the market has established very attractive prices. It’s the same principle why Wal-Mart trucks in snow shovels in a snow storm.” In other words, opportunities like Barnett Shale are market-driven.

Technically, the U.S. Geological Survey describes the Barnet Shale formation as the “Greater Newark East Frac-Barrier Continuous Barnett Shale Gas Assessment Unit.” The rock is identified as a Mississippian formation, dating back some 330 million years. Geologists describe the formation as “source rock” or “reservoir rock,” assuming that the organic material in the metamorphic shale has morphed into the “kerogen” traditionally assumed as needed to produce natural gas.

Barnett Shale is deeply fractured, with fissures that tended to be sealed by calcium carbonate. The field went undiscovered until Mitchell Energy experimented with employing large gel fracture methods to open the wells to natural gas. The full potential of the field waited for the light sand, water fracture technology developed by Devon Energy Corporation, a technology that fractures the shale so the natural gas can be extracted. The Barnett Shale formation lies at a depth of between 1 to 2 miles below the surface, with the shale running some 400 to 500 feet thick.

Commented Jerome Corsi, Ph.D., co-author of “Black Gold Stranglehold: The Myth of Scarcity and the Politics of Oil”: “With the field only discovered in 1981, the Barnett Shale natural gas resources were not known when Shell Oil geologist M. King Hubbert started worrying about ‘peak production.’ With natural gas resources this abundant, we can be reasonably assured there remains a large quantity of natural gas to be extracted at home, right on the continental U.S. That abundance should be apparent even to those who want to maintain the doctrinaire position that the Barnett Shale natural gas is organic in nature.”

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