Energy Sustainability

December 09, 2019

In the five different scenarios presented in the 2019 BP Energy Outlook report, oil and gas account for at least half of the energy mix that will be used in 2040. With the continued global need for oil and gas, Drs. Mukul Sharma, Hugh Daigle and David DiCarlo believe it is critical to continue tackling and finding innovative solutions for current sustainability challenges in water, land, and air.

The professors’ goals are to help protect the environment, while providing industry and society with economic benefits. They are also passionate about providing the next generation of petroleum engineers with the robust skills needed to address the hydrocarbon questions of tomorrow. While the phrase “energy sustainability” is often connected to renewable energy resources, these professors see tremendous opportunities for oil and gas to become a more sustainable resource through conservation and efficiency.

(l to r: Drs. David DiCarlo, Mukul Sharma and Hugh Daigle)


With the shale boom taking off a little over a decade ago, the Permian Basin, which is the largest shale play in the U.S., has increased both its water usage and the volumes of water produced. According to an article in the San Antonio Express-News, shale wells are each using around 10 million gallons of water or about 15 Olympic-sized swimming pools – more than double the amount a few years ago.

Sharma’s goal is to reduce the amount of water currently being used per barrel of equivalent oil produced. He and his team of researchers are focusing on four main areas for water sustainability, which include: improved oil recovery from existing horizontal wells, non-aqueous fluids for fracturing (ex. carbon dioxide, foams, etc.), water reuse and recycling, and safe water injection and disposal.

His group has been involved in several field pilot tests for huff ‘n’ puff gas injection for improved oil recovery, using gases with different compositions, pressures, and soak times. “For water reuse and recycling, we are researching methods for making produced water suitable for fracturing through the use of novel friction reducers and membranes,” Sharma said.

The intent of Sharma’s water injection and disposal research, is to discover best practices that would mitigate induced seismicity challenges. While Sharma says the industry has done a good job of reducing the impact of shale oil and gas development, he believes continuing to improve operations will be key for future production.

Being conscious of the environmental impact is part of our social license to operate as responsible stewards of our resources.


With the industry producing more oil, a continued challenge is getting the resource to market. Transporting petroleum by truck or rail are two viable options, but they can have safety concerns such as vehicular fatalities and explosions. The other option is through pipelines, which Daigle says is ideal.

“Pipelines are a lot safer than trucks or trains but they are not without their problems, so we are looking into how to make pipelines safer for the public and the environment,” Daigle said.

His research project is focused on detecting any anomalies in the pipeline that might be indicative of structural integrity issues, including corrosion or someone tampering with the pipelines. The goal of the project is to improve the early detection of those types of events.

“We should be able to detect the leaks before they are actually leaks,” Daigle said. “The way it is done now, you can monitor a pipeline with a drone that enables crews to see discoloration on the ground, but by the time you see the issue it is too late.”

His project, which is a part of the Hildebrand Grand Challenge Seed Grant program, is still in its infancy. Currently, he is proposing to use fiber optic cables that would be installed in the pipeline to continuously monitor its activity. His team wants to take large, continuous streams of data and pass it through a machine learning algorithm that can separate out normal signals from anomalous activity. Daigle says he anticipates the findings will be able to tell him the difference between winds blowing across the pipeline and an actual signal of corrosion that could eventually lead to a leak.

He is also working on getting a sustainability consortium off the ground. He is optimistic that these initial projects will give the initiative positive traction by building its industry and government partners.

“Like EOR, sustainability is an area where we can take the lead among other universities,” Daigle said.  “It is not an area where we have typically done research, but we have the resources to be successful.”


DiCarlo, an associate professor, is focusing his research around gas flaring. According to a report from the Norwegian research firm Rystad Energy, the estimated volumes of methane from natural gas burned off or vented into the atmosphere averaged 663 million cubic feet per day in the second quarter of 2019, which is more than triple the amount of emissions from just two years ago. DiCarlo says there is not a simple solution to the problem, but he hopes by reframing challenges and bringing key people together, they will contribute, particularly in West Texas, to minimizing emissions.

DiCarlo says protecting the environment and economic benefits are not mutually exclusive. He cites Prudhoe Bay, which is the largest reservoir in North America, as a notable example of when regulations had a positive impact on both the atmosphere and the industry.

“When production began in Prudhoe Bay, the regulators told the operators that they could not flare,” DiCarlo said. “With this knowledge, the industry decided to reinject the gas into the wells. Through the physics of displacement, reinjecting the gas ended up helping the industry significantly by going from producing 30 percent of the oil to about 70 or 80 percent.”

However, different engineering is involved in West Texas. DiCarlo says the reservoirs are not shaped the same way in that region. He says there are several potential solutions for the Permian Basin.

“One option is storing the gas in depleted reservoirs while the pipelines are being built,” DiCarlo said. “I am working with an undergraduate research assistant on finding the cost-benefit analysis on gas storage in the Permian.”

In addition, DiCarlo is inviting scientific and regulatory experts to the Hildebrand Department for a gas flaring workshop. The goal is to tackle the emissions problem by outlining solutions seen in the research and having a larger discussion with the industry.

“There are significant opportunities to develop better systems that will greatly reduce gas waste,” DiCarlo said. “It is a precious resource - we want to add value to it so people can power their homes and we can ship it overseas. I think now is the time to correct gas flaring.”