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The massive Tuscaloosa Marine Shale covering eight million acres in Louisiana and Mississippi has long tantalized oil companies and economic development officials with the promise of a new oil boom. But idiosyncratic extraction challenges and the 2014 plunge in the price of oil have kept the Tuscaloosa Marine from realizing its economic potential, analysts say.

Now, a consortium of researchers led by an assistant professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette has obtained a $9.7 million grant the group intends to use to better understand the Tuscaloosa Marine, and in doing so unlock its potential.

The grant is part of a U.S. Dept. of Energy initiative to examine unconventional oil and gas reservoirs, according to a UL-Lafayette news release. About 38 percent of the money comes from the federal government, with the remainder coming from industry sources, the release states. 

The consortium is led by Mehdi Mokhtari, a UL-Lafayette professor, and includes researchers from four other institutions. He described Tuscaloosa marine as a huge resource.  

 “The consortium provides a platform where everyone can learn from each other and share,” Mokhtari said in an interview about the research effort.

A decades-old study estimated the formation contains seven billion barrels of sweet crude oil. And returns of 85 to 100 percent oil from initial wells at Tuscaloosa Marine had “some investors salivating” at the potential for it become a new Eagle Ford Shale, which is in south Texas, according to Natural Gas Intelligence.

There are about 100 wells on the formation, but they produce only about 3,000 barrels per day, according to Mokhtari. The Eagle Ford Shale, meanwhile, is producing about 1 million barrels daily, he said, and it supports more than 100,000 jobs, according to www.eaglefordshale.com.

“Right now the cost of Tuscaloosa Marine Shale wells are high compared to Eagle Ford or other shales,” Mokhtari said. “We are in a learning curve, which makes it more costly.”

That’s in part because producers don’t know where to dig. The formation contains “sweet spots,” with higher contents of oil and gas, Mokhtari said, but producers don’t know where they are. The consortium will help locate these, while also studying engineering techniques for extracting oil and gas from the formation’s extraordinarily tiny pores, among other research focuses. 

One objective of the three-year project is to ensure the research findings are made available in the public sphere, where there is not an abundance of information about the Tuscaloosa Marine. Even the widely cited estimate that it might contain seven billion barrels is "based on very limited data," Mokhtari said.

"Now we will have much more data, and we can better understand this formation," he said.  

Another objective is to ensure that residents of communities within the formation receive training and other support to participate in any future boom, Mokhtari said.

“There is more and more interest from oil companies to engage communities, especially on shale formations,” he said. 

Follow Ben Myers on Twitter, @blevimyers.