The first commercial United States natural gas production (1821) came from an organic-rich Devonian shale in the Appalachian basin. Understanding the geological and geochemical nature of organic shale formations and improving their gas producibility have subsequently been the challenge of millions of dollars worth of research since the 1970s. Shale-gas systems essentially are continuous-type biogenic (predominant), thermogenic, or combined biogenic-thermogenic gas accumulations characterized by widespread gas saturation, subtle trapping mechanisms, seals of variable lithology, and relatively short hydrocarbon migration distances. Shale gas may be stored as free gas in natural fractures and intergranular porosity, as gas sorbed onto kerogen and clay-particle surfaces, or as gas dissolved in kerogen and bitumen.
Five United States shale formations that presently produce gas commercially exhibit an unexpectedly wide variation in the values of five key parameters: thermal maturity (expressed as vitrinite reflectance), sorbed-gas fraction, reservoir thickness, total organic carbon content, and volume of gas in place. The degree of natural fracture development in an otherwise low-matrix-permeability shale reservoir is a controlling factor in gas producibility. To date, unstimulated commercial production has been achievable in only a small proportion of shale wells, those that intercept natural fracture networks. In most other cases, a successful shale-gas well requires hydraulic stimulation. Together, the Devonian Antrim Shale of the Michigan basin and Devonian Ohio Shale of the Appalachian basin accounted for about 84% of the total 380 bcf of shale gas produced in 1999. However, annual gas production is steadily increasing from three other major organic shale formations that subsequently have been explored and developed: the Devonian New Albany Shale in the Illinois basin, the Mississippian Barnett Shale in the Fort Worth basin, and the Cretaceous Lewis Shale in the San Juan basin.
In the basins for which estimates have been made, shale-gas resources are substantial, with in-place volumes of 497-783 tcf. The estimated technically recoverable resource (exclusive of the Lewis Shale) ranges from 31 to 76 tcf. In both cases, the Ohio Shale accounts for the largest share.