There is a vast, untapped gas resource in deep coal seams of the Cooper Basin, where extensive legacy gas infrastructure facilitates efficient access to markets. Proof-of-concept for the 5 million acre (20 000 km2) Cooper Basin Deep Coal Gas (CBDCG) Play was demonstrated by Santos Limited in 2007 during the rise of shale gas. Commercial viability on a full-cycle, standalone basis is yet to be proven. If commercial reservoirs in nanoDarcy matrix permeability shale can be manufactured by engineers, why not in deep, dry, low-vitrinite, poorly cleated coal seams having comparable matrix permeability but higher gas content? Apart from gas being stored in a source rock reservoir format, there is little similarity to other unconventional plays. Without an analogue, development of an optimal reservoir stimulation technology must be undertaken from first principles, using deep coal-specific geotechnical and engineering assumptions. Results to date suggest that stimulation techniques for other unconventional reservoirs are unlikely to be transferable. A paradigm shift in extraction technology may be required, comparable to that devised for shale reservoirs.

Recent collaborative studies between the South Australian Department of State Development, Geological Survey of Queensland and Geoscience Australia provide new insight into the hydrocarbon generative capacity of Cooper Basin coal seams. Sophisticated regional modelling relies upon a limited coal-specific raw dataset involving ~90 (5%) of the total 1900 wells penetrating Permian coal. Complex environmental overprints affecting resource concentration and gas flow capacity are not considered. Detailed resource estimation and the detection of anomalies such as sweet spots requires the incorporation of direct measurement. To increase granularity, the authors are conducting an independent, basin-wide review of underutilised open file data, not yet used for unconventional reservoir purposes. Reservoir parameters are quantified for seams thicker than 10 feet (3 m), primarily using mudlogs and electric logs. To date, ~3750 reservoir intersections are characterised in ~1000 wells. Some parameters relate to resource, others to extraction. A gas storage proxy is generated, not compromised by desorption lost gas corrections.

A 2016 United States Geological Survey resource assessment, based on Geoscience Australia studies, suggests that the Play remains a world-class opportunity, despite being technology-stranded for the past 10 years. Progress has been made in achieving small but incrementally economic flow rates from add-on hydraulic fracture stimulation treatments inside conventional gas fields. Nevertheless, a geology/technology impasse precludes full-cycle, standalone commercial production. A review of open file data and cross-industry literature suggests that the root cause is the inability of current techniques to generate the massive fracture network surface area essential for high gas flow. Coal ductility and high initial reservoir confining stress are interpreted to be responsible. Ultra-deep coal reservoirs, like shale reservoirs, must be artificially created by a large-scale stimulation event. Although coal seams fail the reservoir ‘brittleness test’ for shale reservoir stimulation practices, the authors conclude from recent studies that pervasive, mostly cemented or closed coal fabric planes of weakness may instead be reactivated on a large scale, to create a shale reservoir-like stimulated reservoir volume (SRV), by mechanisms which harness the reservoir stress reduction capacity of desorption-induced coal matrix shrinkage.

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