The Microbial Contribution to Shale Gas: How Much Have They Done, and How Fast Can They Do It?

Monday, 15 December 2014
Anna M Martini, Amherst College, Amherst, MA, United States
Over the past few decades, the importance of microbial contributions to our natural gas supply has been widely recognized, even leading to efforts to enhance the rate of methanogenesis in reservoirs whether the substrate is oil, coal or the organic matter in shale. The identification of biogenic gas was first established with gas compositional and isotopic data. More recently, molecular genomic data has been applied, giving us a glimpse into bacterial and archaeal communities in the subsurface, both in reservoirs where the microbial community was expected by the geochemical signature, but also in flowback waters from formations where there was no indication of anything other than thermogenic gas. With these microbes, it is not so much a question of “build it and they will come”, but more that the community lies in wait for conditions to improve and allow them to flourish.

Conditions for microbial methanogenesis are well constrained: temperatures up to ~80oC, low sulfate concentration, and chloride concentrations under 2M. However, these are rather expansive boundaries and within each range there lies constant turnover in population density as well specific microbial abundances. In addition, the rates at which these microbes are able convert complex organic matter into methane depend upon environmental conditions. Confounding our evaluation of these subsurface communities is the effect that production incurs. Over the past two decades, wells under production in the Antrim Shale have exhibited changes in the geochemistry of formation fluids, most notably a drop in dissolved inorganic carbon of ~10mM. Gas chemistry has also shifted, with increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide that have also become more enriched in 13C, while the co-produced methane has become more depleted in 13C over the 20 years that these few wells have been monitored. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the microbial community has also shifted with the water’s chemical evolution. Most intriguing is the correlation of the deuterium in the water to the methane, where CO2-reduction seems to remain the dominant methanogenic pathway and the gas composition is responding to changes in the water source. This may signify a relatively high proportion of recently produced methane in the system.