Tests this summer on Pierre Shale that stretches across much of the Great Plains could help build the case for an underground lab and, if feasible, lead to energy production or underground storage in the rock formation.
The Legislature approved $464,000 for the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology study after the U.S. Department of Energy and Sandia National Laboratory funded an initial $150,000 examination.
Bill Roggenthen, research scientist in the Department of Geology and Geological Engineering at the School of Mines, said the goal is simply to learn more about how Pierre Shale would respond under certain uses, called "creep," or how it deforms over time.
"This isn't an application project. This is trying to figure out how shale behaves. So if somebody wants to use it for an application, that would be great. We're trying to understand how this shale deforms," he said. "First, you've got to figure that out. Then you want to see if it's suitable for what you want to do."
Some of those uses could include oil and gas production, including hydraulic fracturing, or fracking; underground storage of hydrocarbons in shale caverns that have been mined; fuel and waste disposal; and carbon dioxide sequestration.
"Shale is good to store these products in because it doesn't allow it to escape," said Lance Roberts, head of the Department of Mining Engineering & Management at School of Mines.
"Could the gas from North Dakota that they're flaring off be shipped and stored? These are longer-term questions we don't know the answer to. But these are things we're just now starting on."
Besides South Dakota, the formation extends across parts of North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas, Roggenthen said.
Researchers have bored the first of two deep holes near Fort Pierre and taken the 3,000 pounds of rock to Rapid City, which they plan to start studying this week. Then they'll use a computer model to determine if it would be possible to build what would be the first underground shale research laboratory in the U.S., which would allow work in the actual rock, Roberts said.
He did not estimate when a lab could be built or how much it might cost.
"We're just now early in the process," Roberts said.
Republican state Rep. David Lust of Rapid City, the House majority leader, said the state money was left over from the previous fiscal year.
"It's things like this that hopefully lead to larger investments that help South Dakota and the nation as a whole deal with energy issues," he said.