Written by Tom Zeller Jr

 For the Huffington Post

A veritable explosion in the number of natural gas wells in the United States in the late 2000’s resulted in only modest gains in production, a new study finds, suggesting that the promise of natural gas as a bountiful and economical domestic fuel source has been wildly oversold.

The findings, part of a broader analysis of natural gas published Thursday by the Post Carbon Institute, an energy and climate research organization in California, is one of a growing number of studies to undermine a natural gas catechism that has united industry, environmental groups and even the Obama White House in recent years.

It also comes on the heels of another study, published Monday, lending credence to claims that modern natural gas drilling techniques are contributing to methane contamination of drinking water wells in surrounding communities.

According to the author of Thursday’s study, David Hughes, a geoscientist and fellow at the institute, the bedrock assumptions of the natural gas revolution — that new drilling techniques have cracked open deep layers of shale and made available a 100-year supply of clean, domestic energy that could displace dirty coal and oil — are simply not true.

“The real takeaway here is scale,” Hughes said in a telephone interview. “If you look at the production estimates as the government is making them now, you’re talking about a near quadrupling of shale gas by 2035.”

The estimates come from the Energy Information Administration, which suggested in its most recent projections that shale gas would account for 45 percent of all natural gas production in the U.S. by 2035 — up from roughly 14 percent currently.

But the actual productivity profile of new, unconventional wells — often tapped at tremendous expense — is far less clear than is normally portrayed, Hughes said. Studies at existing fields, or plays, suggest that many shale wells tend to be highly productive in their first year, and then decline steeply — sometimes by as much as 80 percent or more — after that, requiring new wells to be plumbed

Indeed, while the number of active gas wells, which has nearly doubled since 1990, to half a million, has increased in the U.S, production per well has declined by nearly 50 percent over the same period, Hughes said, suggesting that as the industry converts increasingly to shale gas, more and more wells will be needed to maintain even a baseline level of production — much less to create a substantive increase.

If that’s the case, Hughes said, then those hoping that the shale gas boom might one day provide enough natural gas to replace coal for electricity generation, or oil as a transportation fuel, will be sadly disappointed. Indeed, he said, the number of new wells that would be needed to meet these goals would create a dystopian landscape of well pads and gas pipelines that few people would want to inhabit.

“If that were to happen, for those people living in Pennsylvania and New York, well, they haven’t seen anything yet,” Hughes said, referring to those states now sitting atop major shale gas deposits.

Mr. Hughes also highlighted the growing number of environmental costs that come with natural gas development. These include everything from water intensity and heavy truck traffic to the risks of localized pollution associated with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — the high-pressure injection of water, sand and chemicals underground to break up rock formations and release gas.

More broadly, questions have been raised about the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas development over its lifecycle, with at least one study suggesting that it may be no better than coal.

Dan Whitten, a spokesman for America’s Natural Gas Alliance, an industry lobby group, said in an e-mail message that the report was retreading old ground and amounted to a smear campaign on natural gas.

“This report is recycling the widely discredited claims of anti-drilling activists on greenhouse gas emissions,” Whitten said. “Their estimates run counter to the accepted scientific consensus and have been heavily criticized by climate scientists and others who are interested in a fact-based debate about our energy choices as a nation.”

Whitten also argued that it is now “the established scientific consensus” that the U.S. has “vast domestic supplies of natural gas that can play a growing role in meeting our country’s energy needs for generations.”

He also said that no one was seriously suggesting that coal or transportation fuel be entirely replaced by natural gas, and that such arguments amount to “unrealistic scenarios” presented by Hughes simply to be knocked down.

“Most experts in our energy debates understand and agree that it will take all kinds of energy to meet our nation’s growing future needs,” he said. “From our initial review, no new ground was broken with this report. As such, it doesn’t change the fact that the vast supplies of clean natural gas right here in North America give our country a chance to substantially improve energy security, clean our air and improve our economy.”

But while the resource is inarguably vast, Hughes is not alone in suggesting that the industry is overstating how much can be economically pulled out of the ground.

Arthur E. Berman, a geological consultant and director of Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc., also argues that natural gas is not as abundant or as inexpensive as is commonly believed.

“I do not dispute for a minute that the resource size for natural gas is huge. There’s a lot of gas in place in shales,” Berman said in a telephone interview. “The question for me is how much can be produced for a profit?”

Berman says that reserves — meaning the amount of natural gas that is actually commercially available to produce — will last only about 22 years. This is partly because shale gas plays once touted to be monstrous in size have typically contracted to core areas of production a mere fraction of the originally advertised size.

Hughes, meanwhile, cited Berman and and other analysts who also say that gas, at roughly $4 per thousand cubic feet (mcf), is too cheap for companies to recoup the costs of producing it.

From Thursday’s study:

Analysts like Arthur Berman suggest the marginal cost is about $7.50/mcf compared to a current price of about $4.00/mcf. Others, such as Kenneth Medlock (2010), suggest that the break-even price ranges from $4.25/mcf to $7.00/mcf. The Bank of America (2008) has placed the mean break-even cost at $6.64/mcf with a range of $4.20/mcf to $11.50/mcf. One thing seems certain: Shale gas, which appears to be the only hope for significantly ramping up U.S. gas production, is expensive gas, much of which is marginally economic to non-economic at today’s gas prices.

And yet, with easier-to-reach, conventional sources of gas largely depleted, the ability to pull gas from deep layers of shale rock has been touted as a game changer, and the notion was quickly embraced by a broad cross-section of social, political and business interests.

Writes Mr. Hughes:

First, the shale gas industry was motivated to hype production prospects in order to attract large amounts of needed investment capital; it did this by drilling the best sites first and extrapolating initial robust results to apply to more problematic prospective regions. The energy policy establishment, desperate to identify a new energy source to support future economic growth, accepted the industry’s hype uncritically. This in turn led Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, 60 Minutes, and many other media outlets to proclaim that shale gas would transform the energy world. Finally, several prominent environmental organizations, looking for a way to lobby for lower carbon emissions without calling for energy cutbacks, embraced shale gas as a necessary “bridge fuel” toward a renewable energy future. Each group saw in shale gas what it wanted and needed.

And at least for now, the 100-year slogan continues.

“A lot of times, things are right underneath our feet, and all we need to do is change the way we’re thinking about them,” says Erik Oswold, an ExxonMobil geologist, in an ad circulating on the online video service Hulu. “A couple decades ago, we didn’t realize just how much natural gas was trapped in rocks thousands of feet below us. Technology has made it possible to safely unlock this cleaner burning natural gas. These deposits can provide us with fuel for 100 years.”

President Obama, delivering a speech on energy policy at Georgetown University on March 30, echoed the industry’s mantra.

“Now, in terms of new sources of energy, we have a few different options,” the President said. “The first is natural gas. Recent innovations have given us the opportunity to tap large reserves — perhaps a century’s worth of reserves, a hundred years worth of reserves -– in the shale under our feet.”

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As reported by Bipartisan Policy Center

March 22, 2011

Media Contact:

Paul Bledsoe
Bipartisan Policy Center
(202) 637‐0400
pbledsoe@bipartisanpolicy.org

Washington, DC – A national producer—consumer Task Force convened by the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) and the American Clean Skies Foundation (ACSF) issued a report today finding that the growth of shale gas production “reduce[s] the susceptibility of [natural] gas markets to price instability and provide[s] an opportunity to expand the efficient use of natural gas in the United States.”

The Task Force’s 70-page report, the result of a yearlong review, calls on governments to “encourage the development of domestic natural gas resources, subject to appropriate environmental safeguards” given that the efficient use of gas has the potential to reduce harmful air emissions, enhance energy security and improve the prospects of U.S.-based energy-intensive manufacturers.

With a more stable price horizon for natural gas, the report also urges state public utility regulators and industry to consider making greater use of longer term supply contracts. “Rules that unnecessarily restrict the use of or raise the cost of long-term contract and hedging tools for managing supply risk should be avoided,” the Task Force said.

“We have a good problem,” said Task Force co-Chair, Norm Szydlowski, Bipartisan Policy Center and President and CEO of SemGroup Corporation. “Finding more natural gas provides an opportunity that is as much unparalleled as it was unexpected. Fundamental changes that have taken shape in the domestic supply and demand balance for natural gas, including an unprecedented level of available storage and import capacity, should allow markets to function more efficiently and fluidly in the future,” said Szydlowski.

“The extensive work of this diverse, expert panel identifies a small number of practical regulatory and policy measures that can provide the necessary confidence to support new investment in efficient applications of natural gas,” said Ralph Cavanagh, Senior Attorney and Co-Director of the Energy Program at Natural Resources Defense Council. “If the industry can meet high standards of environmental performance for extracting and delivering the fuel, we are looking here at very good news for America’s economy and industrial competitiveness, the environment, and our nation’s energy security.”

“The Task Force findings and recommendations reflect optimism that the robust supply horizon for natural gas presents fresh opportunities—not only to move beyond prior price volatility concerns shared by both consumers and producers, but to develop new tools for managing price uncertainty,” said Marianne Kah, Chief Economist, Planning and Strategy of ConocoPhillips. “With sound policies, the nation can capitalize on this abundant natural gas supply and convert it into intelligent energy progress.”

“With U.S. natural gas now one-fourth the price of oil on an energy equivalent basis, it is further welcome news to consumers that, with the right policies, U.S. natural gas appears poised to enter into an era of greater price stability,” said Paula Gant, Senior Vice President for Policy and Planning of the American Gas Association.

“The fact that a diverse Task Force like this could reach a consensus on these particular findings and recommendations was unexpected,” said Task Force co-Chair Gregory C. Staple, CEO of ACSF. “This consensus suggests that, although we may have a stalemate on many other energy issues, there is at least one important area – natural gas – where progress is within reach,” Staple added.

Background

Interest has grown recently in natural gas as a cleaner, low-carbon, low-cost alternative to other fossil fuels in the electric power and industrial sectors. For example, in his State of the Union address, President Obama called for a federal clean energy standard for generating electricity that could be partly satisfied by using more domestic natural gas.

The Task Force was jointly convened by the BPC and ACSF in March 2010 to examine historic causes of instability in natural gas markets and to explore potential remedies. Task Force members, listed below, represent natural gas producers and distributors, consumer groups and large industrial users, as well as independent experts, state regulatory commissions and environmental groups.

Key Task Force Findings and Recommendations:

1. Recent developments allowing for the economic extraction of natural gas from shale formations reduce the susceptibility of gas markets to price instability and provide an opportunity to expand the efficient use of natural gas in the United States.

2. Government policy at the federal, state and municipal level should encourage and facilitate the development of domestic natural gas resources, subject to appropriate environmental safeguards. Balanced fiscal and regulatory policies will enable an increased supply of natural gas to be brought to market at more stable prices. Conversely, policies that discourage the development of domestic natural gas resources, that discourage demand, or that drive or mandate inelastic demand will disrupt the supply-demand balance, with adverse effects on the stability of natural gas prices and investment decisions by energy-intensive manufacturers.

3. The efficient use of natural gas has the potential to reduce harmful air emissions, improve energy security, and increase operating rates and levels of capital investment in energy intensive industries.

4. Public and private policy makers should remove barriers to using a diverse portfolio of natural gas contracting structures and hedging options. Long-term contracts and hedging programs are valuable tools to manage natural gas price risk. Policies, including tax measures and accounting rules, that unnecessarily restrict the use or raise the costs of these risk management tools should be avoided.

5. The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) should consider the merits of diversified natural gas portfolios, including hedging and longer-term natural gas contracts, building on its 2005 resolution. Specifically, NARUC should examine:

  • Whether the current focus on shorter-term contracts, first-of-the-month pricing provisions and spot market prices supports the goal of enhancing price stability for end users,
  • The pros and cons of long-term contracts for regulators, regulated utilities and their customers,
  • The regulatory risk issues associated with long-term contracts and the issues of utility commission pre-approval of long-term contracts and the look-back risk for regulated entities, and
  • State practices that limit or encourage long-term contracting.

6. As the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) implements financial reform legislation, including specifically Title VII of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 (Pub. L. 111-203), the CFTC should preserve the ability of natural gas end users to cost effectively utilize the derivatives markets to manage their commercial risk exposure. In addition, the CFTC should consider the potential impact of any new rulemaking on liquidity in the natural gas derivatives market, as reduced liquidity could have an adverse affect on natural gas price stability.

7. Policy makers should recognize the important role of natural gas pipeline and storage infrastructure and existing import infrastructure in promoting stable gas prices. Policies to support the development of a fully functional and safe gas transmission and storage infrastructure both now and in the future, including streamlined regulatory approval and options for market-based rates for new storage in the United States, should be continued.

Complete copies of the Task Force report along with a library of original commissioned research can be found here and here.

Sponsoring Task Force Members:

Gregory C. Staple
Task Force Co-Chair
Chief Executive Officer
American Clean Skies Foundation

Norm Szydlowski
Task Force Co-Chair
Bipartisan Policy Center;
President & CEO
SemGroup Corporation

Ken Bromfield
U.S. Commercial Director, Energy Business
The Dow Chemical Company

Carlton Buford
Lead Economist
The Williams Companies

Peter Sheffield
Vice President, Energy Policy and Government Affairs
Spectra Energy Corporation

Ralph Cavanagh
Senior Attorney and Co-Director, Energy Program
Natural Resources Defense Council

Paula Gant
Senior Vice President for Policy and Planning
American Gas Association and on behalf of the American Gas Foundation

Carl Haga
Director, Gas Services
Southern Company

Byron Harris
Director
West Virginia Consumer Advocate Division

Marianne Kah
Chief Economist, Planning and Strategy
ConocoPhillips

Todd Strauss
Senior Director, Energy Policy, Planning and Analysis
Pacific Gas & Electric Company

Additional Task Force Members:

Colette Honorable
Chairman
Arkansas Public Service Commission

Sharon Nelson
Former Chair, Board of Directors
Consumers Union

Sue Tierney
Managing Principal
Analysis Group, Inc.;
Former Assistant Secretary of Energy

Bill Wince
Vice President, Transportation and Business Development
Chesapeake Energy Marketing

Marty Zimmerman
Professor
Ross School of Business, University of Michigan;
Former Group Vice President, Corporate Affairs,
Ford Motor Company

About the American Clean Skies Foundation

The American Clean Skies Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit, supports energy independence and a clean, low-carbon environment through expanded use of natural gas, renewables and efficiency. For more information, visit www.cleanskies.org.

About the Bipartisan Policy Center

The Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) is a non-profit organization that was established in 2007 by former Senate Majority Leaders Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, Bob Dole and George Mitchell to develop and promote solutions that can attract public support and political momentum in order to achieve real progress. The BPC acts as an incubator for policy efforts that engage top political figures, advocates, academics and business leaders in the art of principled compromise. For more information, please visit our website.

As reported by Energy Information Administration (EIA) Logo - Need Help? 202-586-8800

Shale gas refers to natural gas that is trapped within shale formations. Shales are fine-grained sedimentary rocks that can be rich sources of petroleum and natural gas. Over the past decade, the combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing has allowed access to large volumes of shale gas that were previously uneconomical to produce. The production of natural gas from shale formations has rejuvenated the natural gas industry in the United States.

Did You Know?

Sedimentary rocks are rocks formed by the accumulation of sediments at the Earth’s surface and within bodies of water. Common sedimentary rocks include sandstone, limestone, and shale.

U.S. Natural Gas Supply, 1990-2035
Chart showing U.S. natural gas supply, 1990-2035. Source, EIA Annual Energy Outlook 2010

Did You Know?

Shale gas in 2009 made up 14% of total U.S. natural gas supply. Production of shale gas is expected to continue to increase, and constitute 45% of U.S. total natural gas supply in 2035, as projected in the EIA Annual Energy Outlook 2011.

Does the U.S. Have Abundant Shale Gas Resources?

Of the natural gas consumed in the United States in 2009, 87% was produced domestically; thus, the supply of natural gas is not as dependent on foreign producers as is the supply of crude oil, and the delivery system is less subject to interruption. The availability of large quantities of shale gas will further allow the United States to consume a predominantly domestic supply of gas.

According to the EIA Annual Energy Outlook 2011, the United States possesses 2,552 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of potential natural gas resources. Natural gas from shale resources, considered uneconomical just a few years ago, accounts for 827 Tcf of this resource estimate, more than double the estimate published last year. At the 2009 rate of U.S. consumption (about 22.8 Tcf per year), 2,552 Tcf of natural gas is enough to supply approximately 110 years of use. Shale gas resource and production estimates increased significantly between the 2010 and 2011 Outlook reports and are likely to increase further in the future.

Where is Shale Gas Found?

Shale gas is found in shale “plays,” which are shale formations containing significant accumulations of natural gas and which share similar geologic and geographic properties. A decade of production has come from the Barnett Shale play in Texas. Experience and information gained from developing the Barnett Shale have improved the efficiency of shale gas development around the country. Another important play is the Marcellus Shale in the eastern United States. Surveyors and geologists identify suitable well locations in areas with potential for economical gas production by using both surface-level observation techniques and computer-generated maps of the subsurface.

Map of Shale Gas Plays for the Lower 48 States
Source: U.S. Shale Plays Map, http://www.eia.doe.gov/oil_gas/rpd/shale_gas.pdf

How is Shale Gas Produced?

Two major drilling techniques are used to produce shale gas. Horizontal drilling is used to provide greater access to the gas trapped deep in the producing formation. First, a vertical well is drilled to the targeted rock formation. At the desired depth, the drill bit is turned to bore a well that stretches through the reservoir horizontally, exposing the well to more of the producing shale.

Hydraulic fracturing (commonly called “fracking” or “hydrofracking”) is a technique in which water, chemicals, and sand are pumped into the well to unlock the hydrocarbons trapped in shale formations by opening cracks (fractures) in the rock and allowing natural gas to flow from the shale into the well. When used in conjunction with horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing enables gas producers to extract shale gas at reasonable cost. Without these techniques, natural gas does not flow to the well rapidly, and commercial quantities cannot be produced from shale.

Schematic Geology of Natural Gas Resources

Graphic showing the schematic geology of natural gas resources
Source: modified from U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet 0113-01.

How is Shale Gas Production Different from Conventional Gas Production?

Conventional gas reservoirs are created when natural gas migrates toward the Earth’s surface from an organic-rich source formation into highly permeable reservoir rock, where it is trapped by an overlying layer of impermeable rock. In contrast, shale gas resources form within the organic-rich shale source rock. The low permeability of the shale greatly inhibits the gas from migrating to more permeable reservoir rocks. Without horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, shale gas production would not be economically feasible because the natural gas would not flow from the formation at high enough rates to justify the cost of drilling.

Diagram of a Typical Hydraulic Fracturing Operation

Diagram of a Typical Hydraulic Fracturing Operation
Source: ProPublica, http://www.propublica.org/special/hydraulic-fracturing-national

What Are the Environmental Issues Associated with Shale Gas?

Natural gas is cleaner-burning than coal or oil. The combustion of natural gas emits significantly lower levels of key pollutants, including carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide, than does the combustion of coal or oil. When used in efficient combined-cycle power plants, natural gas combustion can emit less than half as much CO2 as coal combustion, per unit of energy released.

However, there are some potential environmental issues that are also associated with the production of shale gas. Shale gas drilling has significant water supply issues. The drilling and fracturing of wells requires large amounts of water. In some areas of the country, significant use of water for shale gas production may affect the availability of water for other uses, and can affect aquatic habitats.

Drilling and fracturing also produce large amounts of wastewater, which may contain dissolved chemicals and other contaminants that require treatment before disposal or reuse. Because of the quantities of water used, and the complexities inherent in treating some of the chemicals used, wastewater treatment and disposal is an important and challenging issue. If mismanaged, the hydraulic fracturing fluid can be released by spills, leaks, or various other exposure pathways. The use of potentially hazardous chemicals in the fracturing fluid means that any release of this fluid can result in the contamination of surrounding areas, including sources of drinking water, and can negatively impact natural habitats.