At a time when much of the world is looking with a mix of envy and excitement at the recent boom in USA unconventional gas from shale rock, when countries from China to Poland to France to the UK are beginning to launch their own ventures into unconventional shale gas extraction, hoping it is the cure for their energy woes, the US shale boom is revealing itself to have been a gigantic hyped confidence bubble that is already beginning to deflate. Carpe diem!
America: The New Saudi Arabia?
If we’re to believe the current media reports out of Washington and the US oil and gas industry, the United States is about to become the “new Saudi Arabia.” We are told she is suddenly and miraculously on the track to energy self-sufficiency. No longer need the US economy depend on high-risk oil or gas from the politically unstable Middle East or African countries. The Obama White House energy adviser, Heather Zichal, has even shifted her focus from pushing carbon cap ‘n trade schemes to promoting America’s “shale revolution.”
In his January 2012 State of the Union Address to Congress, President Obama claimed that, largely owing to the shale gas revolution, “We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years.” 
Renowned energy experts like Cambridge Energy Research’s Daniel Yergin in recent Congressional testimony waxed almost poetic about the purported benefits of the recent US shale oil and gas exploitation: “The United States is in the midst of the ‘unconventional revolution in oil and gas’ that, it becomes increasingly apparent, goes beyond energy itself.” He didn’t explain what exactly energy going beyond energy itself means. He also claimed that “the industry supports 1.7 million jobs – a considerable accomplishment given the relative newness of the technology. That number could rise to 3 million by 2020.” Very impressive numbers.
Mr Yergin went on to suggest a major geopolitical dimension of America’s shale oil and gas industry, saying “expansion of US energy exports will add an additional dimension to US influence in the world…Shale gas has risen from two percent of domestic production a decade ago to 37 percent of supply, and prices have dropped dramatically. US oil output, instead of continuing its long decline, has increased dramatically – by about 38 percent since 2008. Just the increase since 2008 is equivalent to the entire output of Nigeria, the seventh-largest producing country in OPEC…People talk about the potential geopolitical impact of the shale gas and tight oil. That impact is already here…”
In their Energy Outlook to 2030, published in 2012, BP’s CEO Bob Dudley sounded a similar upbeat projection of the role of shale gas and oil in making North America energy independent of the Middle East. BP predicted that growth in shale oil and gas supplies—“along with other fuel sources”—will make the western hemisphere virtually self-sufficient in energy by 2030. In a development with enormous geopolitical implications, a large swath of the world including North and South America would see its dependence on oil imports from potentially volatile countries in the Middle East and elsewhere disappear, BP added.
There’s only one thing wrong with all the predictions of a revitalized United States energy superpower flooding the world with its shale oil and shale gas. It’s based on a bubble, on hype from the usual Wall Street spin doctors. In reality it is becoming increasingly clear that the shale revolution is a short-term flash in the energy pan, a new Ponzi fraud, carefully built with the aid of the same Wall Street banks and their “market analyst” friends, many of whom brought us the 2000 “dot.com” bubble and, more spectacularly, the 2002-2007 US real estate securitization bubble. A more careful look at the actual performance of the shale revolution and its true costs is instructive.
One reason we hear little about the declining fortunes of shale gas and oil is that the boom is so recent, reaching significant proportions only in 2009-2010. Long-term field extraction data for a significant number of shale gas wells only recently is coming to light. Another reason is that there have grown up huge vested corporate interests from Wall Street to the oil industry who are trying everything possible to keep the shale revolution myth alive. Despite all their efforts however, data coming to light, mostly for the review of industry professionals, is alarming.
Shale gas has recently come onto the gas market in the US via use of several combined techniques developed among others by Dick Cheney’s old company, Halliburton Inc. Halliburton several years ago combined new methods for drilling in a horizontal direction with injection of chemicals and “fracking,” or hydraulic fracturing of the shale rock formations that often trap volumes of natural gas. Until certain changes in the last few years, shale gas was considered uneconomical. Because of the extraction method, shale gas is dubbed unconventional and is extracted in far different ways from conventional gas.
The US Department of Energy’ EIA defines conventional oil and gas as oil and gas “produced by a well drilled into a geologic formation in which the reservoir and fluid characteristics permit
the oil and natural gas to readily flow to the wellbore.” Conversely, unconventional hydrocarbon production doesn’t meet these criteria, either because geological formations present a very low level of porosity and permeability, or because the fluids have a density approaching or even exceeding that of water, so that they cannot be produced, transported, and refined by conventional methods. By definition then, unconventional oil and gas are far more costly and difficult to extract than conventional, one reason they only became attractive when oil prices soared above $100 a barrel in early 2008 and more or less remained there.
To extract the unconventional shale gas, a hydraulic fracture is formed by pumping a fracturing fluid into the wellbore at sufficient pressure causing the porous shale rock strata to crack. The fracture fluid, whose precise contents are usually company secret and extremely toxic, continues further into the rock, extending the crack. The trick is to then prevent the fracture from closing and ending the supply of gas or oil to the well. Because in a typical fracked well fluid volumes number in millions of gallons of water, water mixed with toxic chemicals, fluid leak-off or loss of fracturing fluid from the fracture channel into the surrounding permeable rock takes place. If not controlled properly, that fluid leak-off can exceed 70% of the injected volume resulting in formation matrix damage, adverse formation fluid interactions, or altered fracture geometry and thereby decreased production efficiency.
Hydraulic fracturing has recently become the preferred US method of extracting unconventional oil and gas resources. In North America, some estimate that hydraulic fracturing will account for nearly 70% of natural gas development in the future.
Why have we just now seen the boom in fracking shale rock to get gas and oil? Thank then-Vice president Dick Cheney and friends. The real reason for the recent explosion of fracking in the United States was passage of legislation in 2005 by the US Congress that exempted the oil industry’s hydraulic fracking, astonishing as it sounds, from any regulatory supervision by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The oil and gas industry is the only industry in America that is allowed by EPA to inject known hazardous materials – unchecked – directly into or adjacent to underground drinking water supplies.
The 2005 law is known as the “Halliburton Loophole.” That’s because it was introduced on massive lobbying pressure from the company that produces the lion’s share of chemical hydraulic fracking fluids – Dick Cheney’s old company, Halliburton. When he became Vice President under George W. Bush in early 2001, Cheney immediately got Presidential responsibility for a major Energy Task Force to make a comprehensive national energy strategy. Aside from looking at Iraq oil potentials as documents later revealed, the energy task force used Cheney’s considerable political muscle and industry lobbying money to win exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act. 
During Cheney’s term as vice president he moved to make sure the Government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would give a green light to a major expansion of shale gas drilling in the US.
In 2004 the EPA issued a study of the environmental effects of fracking. That study has been called “scientifically unsound” by EPA whistleblower Weston Wilson. In March of 2005, EPA Inspector General Nikki Tinsley found enough evidence of potential mishandling of the EPA hydraulic fracturing study to justify a review of Wilson’s complaints. The Oil and Gas Accountability Project conducted a review of the EPA study which found that EPA removed information from earlier drafts that suggested unregulated fracturing poses a threat to human health, and that the Agency did not include information that suggests “fracturing fluids may pose a threat to drinking water long after drilling operations are completed.” Under political pressure the report was ignored. Fracking went full-speed ahead.
© n/a Fracking toxic waste. This diagram depicts methane gas and toxic water contaminating the drinking water as the fracturing cracks penetrate the water table.
The Halliburton Loophole is no minor affair. The process of hydraulic fracking to extract gas involves staggering volumes of water and of some of the most toxic chemicals known. Water is essential to shale gas fracking. Hydraulic fracturing uses between 1.2 and 3.5 million US gallons (4.5 and 13 million liters) of water per well, with large projects using up to 5 million US gallons (19 Million liters). Additional water is used when wells are refractured; this may be done several times. An average well requires 3 to 8 million US gallons of water over its lifetime. Entire farm regions of Pennsylvania and other states with widespread hydraulic fracking report their well water sources have become so toxic as to make the water undrinkable. In some cases fracked gas seeps into the home via the normal water faucet.
© Screenshot from HBO film Gasland – Rural resident flicking on cigarette lighter next to his kitchen faucet and watching his drinking water, infused with gas and chemicals, ignite in flames as high as 3 feet.
During the uproar over the BP Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the Obama Administration and the Energy Department formed an Advisory Commission on Shale Gas, ostensibly to examine the growing charges of environmental hazards from shale gas practices.
Their report was released in November 2011. It was what could only be called a “whitewash” of the dangers and benefits of shale gas.
The commission was headed by former CIA director John M. Deutch. Deutch himself is not neutral. He sits on the board of the LNG gas company Cheniere Energy. Deutch’s Cheniere Energy’s Sabine Pass project is one of only two current US projects to create an LNG terminal to export US shale gas to foreign markets.
Deutch is also on the board of Citigroup, one of the world’s most active energy industry banks, tied to the Rockefeller family. He also sits on the board of Schlumberger, which along with Halliburton, is one of the leading companies doing hydraulic fracking. In fact, of the seven panel members, six had ties to the energy industry, including fellow Deutch panel member and shale fracking booster, Daniel Yergin, himself a member of the National Petroleum Council. Little surprise that the Deutch report called shale gas, “the best piece of news about energy in the last 50 years.” Deutch added, “Over the long term it has the potential to displace liquid fuels in the United States.” 
Shale gas: Racing against the Clock
With regulatory free-rein, now also backed by the Obama Administration, the US oil and gas industry went full-power into shale gas extraction, taking advantage of high oil and natural gas prices to reap billions in quick gains.
According to official US Department of Energy Energy Information Administration data, shale gas extraction ballooned from just under 2 million MCF in 2007, the first year data was tracked, to more than 8,500,000 Mcf by 2011, a fourfold rise to comprise almost 40% of total dry natural gas extraction in the USA that year. In 2002 shale gas was a mere 3% of total gas.
Here enters the paradox of the US “shale gas revolution.” Since the days of oil production wars more than a century ago, various industry initiatives had been created to prevent oil and later gas price collapse due to over-production. During the 1930’s there was discovery of the huge East Texas oilfields, and a collapse of oil prices. The State of Texas, whose Railroad Commission (TRC) had been given regulatory powers not only over railroads but also over oil and gas production in what then was the world’s most important oil producing region, was called in to arbitrate the oil wars. That resulted in daily statewide production quotas so successful that OPEC later modeled itself on the TRC experience.
Today, with federal deregulation of the oil and gas industry, such extraction controls are absent as every shale gas producer from BP to Chesapeake Energy, Anadarko Petroleum, Chevron, Encana and others all raced full-tilt to extract the maximum shale gas from their properties.
The reason for the full-throttle extraction is telling. Shale Gas, unlike conventional gas, depletes dramatically faster owing to its specific geological location. It diffuses and becomes impossible to extract without the drilling of costly new wells.
The result of the rapidly rising volumes of shale gas suddenly on the market was a devastating collapse in the market price of that same gas. In 2005 when Cheney got the EPA exemption that began the shale boom, the marker US gas price measured at Henry Hub in Louisiana, at the intersection of nine interstate pipelines, was some $14 per thousand cubic feet. By February 2011 it had plunged amid a gas glut to $3.88. Currently prices hover around $3.50 per tcf.
In a sobering report, Arthur Berman, a veteran petroleum geologist specialized in well assessment, using existing well extraction data for major shale gas regions in the US since the boom started, reached sobering conclusions. His findings point to a new Ponzi scheme which well might play out in a colossal gas bust over the next months or at best, the next two or three years. Shale gas is anything but the “energy revolution” that will give US consumers or the world gas for 100 years as President Obama was told.
Berman wrote already in 2011, “Facts indicate that most wells are not commercial at current gas prices and require prices at least in the range of $8.00 to $9.00/mcf to break even on full-cycle prices, and $5.00 to $6.00/mcf on point-forward prices. Our price forecasts ($4.00-4.55/mcf average through 2012) are below $8.00/mcf for the next 18 months. It is, therefore, possible that some producers will be unable to maintain present drilling levels from cash flow, joint ventures, asset sales and stock offerings.” 
Berman continued, “Decline rates indicate that a decrease in drilling by any of the major producers in the shale gas plays would reveal the insecurity of supply. This is especially true in the case of the Haynesville Shale play where initial rates are about three times higher than in the Barnett or Fayetteville. Already, rig rates are dropping in the Haynesville as operators shift emphasis to more liquid-prone objectives that have even lower gas rates. This might create doubt about the paradigm of cheap and abundant shale gas supply and have a cascading effect on confidence and capital availability.” 
What Berman and others have also concluded is that the gas industry key players and their Wall Street bankers backing the shale boom have grossly inflated the volumes of recoverable shale gas reserves and hence its expected supply duration. He notes, “Reserves and economics depend on estimated ultimate recoveries (EUR) based on hyperbolic, or increasingly flattening, decline profiles that predict decades of commercial production. With only a few years of production history in most of these plays, this model has not been shown to be correct, and may be overly optimistic….Our analysis of shale gas well decline trends indicates that the Estimated Ultimate Recovery per well is approximately one-half the values commonly presented by operators.” In brief, the gas producers have built the illusion that their unconventional and increasingly costly shale gas will last for decades.
Basing his analysis on actual well data from major shale gas regions in the US, Berman concludes however, that the shale gas wells decline in production volumes at an exponential rate and are liable to run out far faster than being hyped to the market. Could this be the reason financially exposed US shale gas producers, loaded with billions of dollars in potential lease properties bought during the peak of prices, have recently been desperately trying to sell off their shale properties to naïve foreign or other investors?
Three decades of natural gas extraction from tight sandstone and coal-bed methane show that profits are marginal in low permeability reservoirs. Shale reservoirs have orders of magnitude lower reservoir permeability than tight sandstone and coal-bed methane. So why do smart analysts blindly accept that commercial results in shale plays should be different? The simple answer is found in high initial production rates. Unfortunately, these high initial rates are made up for by shorter lifespan wells and additional costs associated with well re-stimulation. Those who expect the long-term unit cost of shale gas to be less than that of other unconventional gas resources will be disappointed…the true structural cost of shale gas production is higher than present prices can support ($4.15/mcf average price for the year ending July 30, 2011), and that per-well reserves are about one-half of the volumes claimed by operators. 
Therein lies the explanation for why a sophisticated oil industry in the United States has desperately been producing full-throttle, in a high-stakes game laying the seeds of their own bankruptcy in the process—They are racing to offload the increasingly unprofitable shale assets before the bubble finally bursts. Wall Street financial backers are in on the Ponzi game with billions at stake, much as in the recent real estate securitization fraud.
One Hundred Years of Gas?
Where then did someone get the number to tell the US President that America had 100 years of gas supply? Here is where lies, damn lies and statistics play a crucial role. The US does not have 100 years of natural gas supply from shale or unconventional sources. That number came from a deliberate blurring by someone of the fundamental difference between what in oil and gas is termed resources and what is called reserves.
A gas or oil resource is the totality of the gas or oil originally existing on or within the earth’s crust in naturally occurring accumulations, including discovered and undiscovered, recoverable and unrecoverable. It is the total estimate, irrespective of whether the gas or oil is commercially recoverable. It’s also the least interesting number for extraction.
On the other hand “recoverable” oil or gas refers to the estimated volume commercially extractable with a specific technically feasible recovery project, a drilling plan, fracking program and the like. The industry breaks the resources into three categories: reserves, which are discovered and commercially recoverable; contingent resources, which are discovered and potentially recoverable but sub-commercial or non-economic in today’s cost-benefit regime; and prospective resources, which are undiscovered and only potentially recoverable.
The Potential Gas Committee (PGC), the standard for US gas resource assessments, uses three categories of technically recoverable gas resources, including shale gas: probable, possible and speculative.
According to careful examination of the numbers it is clear that the President, his advisers and others have taken the PGC’s latest total of all three categories, or 2,170 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of gas—probable, possible and purely speculative—and divided by the 2010 annual consumption of 24 Tcf. To get a number between 90 and 100 years of gas. What is conveniently left unsaid is that most of that total resource is in accumulations too small to be produced at any price, inaccessible to drilling, or is too deep to recover economically.
Arthur Berman in another analysis points out that if we use more conservative and realistic assumptions such as the PGC does in its detailed assessment, more relevant is the Committee’s probable mean resources value of 550 (Tcf) of gas. In turn, if we estimate, also conservatively and realistically based on experience, that about half of this resource actually becomes a reserve (225 Tcf), then the US has approximately 11.5 years of potential future gas supply at present consumption rates.
If we include proved reserves of 273 Tcf, there is an additional 11.5 years of supply for a total of almost 23 years. It is worth noting that proved reserves include proved undeveloped reserves which may or may not be produced depending on economics, so even 23 years of supply is tenuous. If consumption increases, this supply will be exhausted in less than 23 years.
There are also widely differing estimates within the US Government over shale gas recoverable resources. The US Department of Energy EIA uses a very generous calculation for shale gas average recovery efficiency of 13% versus other conservative estimates of about half that or 7% in contrast to recovery efficiencies of 75-80% for conventional gas fields. The generously high recovery efficiency values used for EIA calculations allows the EIA to project an estimate of 482 tcf of recoverable gas for the US. In August 2011, the Interior Department’s US Geological Survey (USGS) released a far more sober estimate for the large shale plays in Pennsylvania and New York called Marcellus Shale. The USGS estimated there are about 84 trillion cubic feet of technically-recoverable natural gas under the Marcellus Shale. Previous estimates from the Energy Information Administration put the figures at 410 trillion cubic feet.
Shale gas plays show unusually high field decline rates with very steep trends, a combination giving low recovery efficiencies. 
Huge shale gas losses
Given the abnormally rapid well decline rates and low recovery efficiencies, it is little wonder that once the euphoria subsided, shale gas producers found themselves sitting on a financial time-bomb and began selling assets to unwary investors as fast as possible.
In a very recent analysis of the actual results of several years of shale gas extraction in the USA as well as the huge and high-cost Canadian Tar Sands oil, David Hughes notes, “Shale gas production has grown explosively to account for nearly 40 percent of US natural gas production. Nevertheless, production has been on a plateau since December 2011; 80 percent of shale gas production comes from five plays, several of which are in decline. The very high decline rates of shale gas wells require continuous inputs of capital—estimated at $42 billion per year to drill more than 7,000 wells—in order to maintain production. In comparison, the value of shale gas produced in 2012 was just $32.5 billion.”
He adds, “The best shale plays, like the Haynesville (which is already in decline) are relatively rare, and the number of wells and capital input required to maintain production will increase going forward as the best areas within these plays are depleted. High collateral environmental impacts have been followed by pushback from citizens, resulting in moratoriums in New York State and Maryland and protests in other states. Shale gas production growth has been offset by declines in conventional gas production, resulting in only modest gas production growth overall. Moreover, the basic economic viability of many shale gas plays is questionable in the current gas price environment.”
If these various estimates are anywhere near accurate, the USA has a resource in unconventional shale gas of anywhere between 11 years and 23 years duration and unconventional oil of perhaps a decade before entering steep decline. The recent rhetoric about US “energy independence” at the current technological state is utter nonsense.
The drilling boom which resulted in this recent glut of shale gas was in part motivated by “held-by-production” shale lease deals with landowners. In such deals the gas company is required to begin drilling in a lease running typically 3-5 years, or forfeit. In the US landowners such as farmers or ranchers typically hold subsurface mineral rights and can lease them out to oil companies. The gas (or oil) company then is under enormous pressure to book gas reserves on the new leases to support company stock prices on the stock market against which it has borrowed heavily to drill.
This “drill or lose it” pressure typically has led companies to seek the juiciest “sweet spots” for fast spectacular gas flows. These are then typically promoted as “typical” of the entire play.
However, as Hughes points out, “High productivity shale plays are not ubiquitous, and relatively small sweet spots within plays offer the most potential. Six of thirty shale plays provide 88 percent of production. Individual well decline rates are high, ranging from 79 to 95 percent after 36 months. Although some wells can be extremely productive, they are typically a small percentage of the total and are concentrated in sweet spots.” 
One estimate of projected shale gas decline suggests the peak will pass well before the end of the decade, perhaps in four years, followed with a rapid decline in volume
The extremely rapid overall gas field declines require from 30 to 50 percent of production to be replaced annually with more drilling, a classic “tiger chasing its tail around the tree” syndrome. This translates to $42 billion of annual capital investment just to maintain current production. By comparison, all USA shale gas produced in 2012 was worth about $32.5 billion at a gas price of $3.40/mcf (which is higher than actual well head prices for most of 2012). That means about a net $10 billion loss on their shale gambles last year for all US shale gas producers.
Even worse, Hughes points out that capital inputs to offset field decline will necessarily increase going forward as the sweet spots within plays are drilled off and drilling moves to lower quality areas. Average well quality (as measured by initial productivity) has fallen nearly 20 percent in the Haynesville, the most productive shale gas play in the US. And it is falling or flat in eight of the top ten plays. Overall well quality is declining for 36 percent of US shale gas production and is flat for 34 percent.
Not surprising in this context, the major shale gas players have been making massive write-downs of their assets to reflect the new reality. Companies began in 2012 reassessing their reserves and, in the face of a gas spot price that was cut in half between July 2011 and July 2012, are being forced to admit that the long-term outlook for natural-gas prices is not positive. The write-downs have a domino effect as bank lending is typically tied to a company’s reserves meaning many companies are being forced to renegotiate credit lines or make distress asset sales to raise cash.
Beginning August 2012, many large shale gas producers in the US were forced to announce major write-downs of the value of their shale gas assets. BP announced write-downs of $4.8 billion, including a $1 billion-plus reduction in the value of its American shale gas assets. England’s BG Group made a $1.3 billion write-down of its US shale gas interests, and Encana, a large Canadian shale gas operator made a $1.7 billion write-down on shale assets in the US and Canada, accompanied by a warning that more were likely if gas prices did not recover. 
The Australian mining giant BHP Billiton is one of the worst hit in the US shale gas bubble as it came in late and big-time. In May, 2012 it announced it was considering taking impairments on the value its US shale-gas assets which it had bought at the peak of the shale gas boom in 2011, when the company paid $4.75 billion to buy shale projects from Chesapeake Energy and acquiring Petrohawk Energy for $15.1 billion.
But by far the worst hit is the once-superstar of shale gas, Oklahoma-based Chesapeake Energy.
Part VI: Chesapeake Energy: The Next Enron?
The company by most accounts that typifies this shale gas boom-bust bubble is the much-hailed leading player in shale, Chesapeake Energy. In August 2012 there were widespread rumors that the company would declare bankruptcy. That would have been embarrassing for the company that was the nation’s second largest gas producer. It would also have signaled to the world the hype that was behind promotion of a “shale energy revolution” from the likes of Yergin and the Wall Street energy promoters looking to earn billions on M&A and other deals in the sector to replace their dismal real estate experiences.
In May 2012, Bill Powers of the Powers Energy Investor, wrote of Chesapeake (CHK by its stock symbl): “Over the past year, however, CHK’s business model has broken down. The company’s shares continue to break to 52-week lows and the company has a funding issue—financial speak for the company is running out of money. While it was able to farm-out a portion of its Utica Shale assets in Ohio to France’s Total last year—this is remarkable given the accounting errors that resulted in Total receiving significantly less revenue from their Barnett Shale joint-venture—CHK has largely run out of prospective acreage to farm-out.” Powers estimated a $3 billion cash shortfall in 2012 for the company. That comes atop already huge corporate debt of $11.1 billion of which $1.7 billion was a revolving line of credit. 
Powers adds, “When the off-balance sheet debt and preferred issues are added to the company’s existing $11.1 billion of on-balance sheet debt, CHK’s has a whopping $20.5 billion of financial obligations. Given such a high level of indebtedness, CHK debt is rated junk and will be for the foreseeable future. “ He concludes, “Having America’s second largest natural gas producer as well as its most reckless destroyer of shareholder capital almost completely walk away from the shale gas business is a great indication that today’s natural gas price bubble is on the verge of popping. CHK has not made any money by drilling shale wells—and neither have virtually any of its peers—and now the dumb money has run out.” 
Angry shareholders forced a major shakeup of the Chesapeake board last September after a Reuters report that CEO Aubrey McClendon had been taking out large loans not fully disclosed to the company’s board or investors. McClendon was forced to resign as Chairman of the company he founded after details leaked out that McClendon has borrowed as much as $1.1 billion in the last three years by pledging his stake in the company’s oil and natural gas wells as collateral. In March 2013 the US Government Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced that it was investigating the company and Chief Executive Aubrey McClendon and had issued subpoenas for information and testimony, among other items looking into a controversial program that grants McClendon a share in every well that Chesapeake drills.
The company is in the midst of a major asset sale of an estimated $6.9 billion to lower debt, including oil and gasfields covering roughly 2.4 million acres. It must invest heavily in drilling new wells to deliver the increased production of more lucrative oil and natural gas liquids, if it is to avoid bankruptcy. As one critical analyst of Chesapeake put it, “the company’s complex accounting methods make it almost impossible for analysts and stockholders to determine what the risks really are. The fact that the CEO is taking out billion-dollar loans and not openly disclosing them only furthers the perception that everything is not as it appears at Chesapeake – that the company is Enron with drilling rigs.” 
The much-touted shale gas revolution in the USA is collapsing along with the stock shares of Chesapeake and other key players.
F. William Engdahl is author of Myths, Lies and Oil Wars. He can be contacted via his website atwww.williamengdahl.com
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 Jeff Goodell, Op. Cit.
Nick Flores is an economist who knows the oil-and-gas industry from the inside, having been in the merchant marines hauling platforms and rigs to sundry locations in the Gulf. Industry exposure didn’t end there; he was in grad school six months after the Exxon Valdez sullied the Arctic shore and studied first-hand the economics of accidents. He was not dismayed. In his words, “Shale gas is a revolution. It has transformed energy in America. What we’re seeing now is but the tip of the iceberg.” He didn’t say from which dwindling sheet it might have been calved.
Yet Flores is not utterly enchanted by the industry. There is what he terms a problem of externalities, meaning that the full cost of the venture is not appreciated when such “routine” risks as methane leaks and pollution of ground or surface water, and “high-priority” risks such as cement, drill-casing, and wastewater-impoundment failures, are not factored into the economic analysis. Such externalities are often expensive and not easily addressed, and should be internalized to reflect real costs.
Having lived in San Francisco, which receives water from the Hetch Hetchy water system, a system so pristine it is one of the few for which the Environmental Protection Agency requires no filtration, Flores comprehends the preciousness of pure water. He wonders what will happen if in our zeal to poke the earth we should inadvertently pollute a major aquifer such as the Ogallala, which underlies eight states and once contained water equal in quantity to Lake Huron. (It too is dwindling.) If such an integral resource should be fouled by whatever means, what then? Part of the damage hits the pocketbook. In heavily fracked Washington County, Pennsylvania, property values have declined almost 25 percent in places overlying aquifers through which drillers cement their casings. Is it “right” that property values have declined, or is it just perception? The answer is unimportant; all that matters is perception’s effect on the market.
Flores notes EPA’s limp-wristed governance of greenhouse gases. Methane, the major component of natural gas, is utterly ignored. (Oh, there are voluntary programs.) EPA may have downsized its prior estimate of how much methane leaks from fracking wells, but that puts it at odds with NOAA‘s recent study. Who is right? In any case, geologists and EPA agree that, compared to conventional drilling, hydraulic fracturing leaks more methane. Fracking fluid is injected and then pumped out (or a percentage is), but it returns laden with natural gas and other disinterred volatile chemicals that if released foul the air around drill sites. An estimated 90 percent of this “burping” can be captured in a “green-completion” process that caps the well and separates the petrochemicals for later sale. Even though this is of economic benefit of drillers, however, it is by no means always done; old fields may lack technology while new fields may have neither pipelines nor storage facilities built, and meanwhile methane seeps away. As you may know, methane in the atmosphere is a serious contender in atmospheric warming. Atmospheric methane gradually converts to carbon dioxide so it is over the short term that it does its damage. In its first 20 years, methane’s ability to capture heat in the atmosphere dwarfs that of carbon dioxide 70 times over.
Much like spent rods from nuclear plants and almost as dangerous, wastewater is a facet of fracking often overlooked and underfunded. Current options include dumping it into often-open holding pools, forcing it into injection wells, or recycling. Dumping it anywhere presents obvious problems including, with injection wells, persuasive evidence of earthquakes. Recycling would be great, but it’s not easy to clean water laced with not only heavy metals and radionuclides but dissolved salts, which require reverse osmosis or other exotic means to treat. (If desalinating salt water were easy, the world would have no freshwater problem, at least not yet.)
Options for dealing with wastewater are under creative review. Why not ship it away? (What do you mean there is no away?) Last March the Coast Guard “quietly” sent to the White House a proposal to put fracking wastewater on barges, said to be safer for transport than trucks and trains. The toxic brew will be shipped to someone else’s back yard for disposal. Yucca Mountain anyone? Frio County, Texas, which is not among the state’s top gas producers but that nevertheless has more disposal wells than the three top gas-producing counties combined, is evaluating a penny-a-barrel fee on disposed wastewater. The compensation is expected to bring the county over a million dollars a year, which would feed a fund to combat environmental damage.
We have such faith in compensation. While it comforts the aggrieved and pains the aggressor, that’s often as far as it goes. And the aggressor’s pain may be tiny indeed. Caps on damages provide a well-trod path for industry to escape real consequence for their sins. (Caps can zap citizens on the other cheek when they limit damages for civil suits.) In the end, let us not forget that no amount of compensation will restore what is irreplaceable.
Subterranean Aquifer Blues
Although groundwater property rights vary widely by state, they generally emphasize water quantity over contamination. Some landowners may use as much groundwater as they wish without regard for impacts anywhere else. This is called the Absolute Dominion Rule, and it is codified in 11 states, including Texas. “Use” in this case would include, I suppose, the right to pollute the groundwater. Colorado and other western states have adopted a doctrine of Prior Appropriation–the first landowner to “beneficially” use or divert water from underground is given priority over later users. Now many states have updated this doctrine with a permit system. Available permits are in hot pursuit; you can guess by whom.
When your well-water starts fizzing, fingering the culprit isn’t easy. Contaminants act differently underground, like senators behind doors. How do you prove who polluted the water, and when, and how? Equally important, what is to be done? EPA says that much progress on cleaning polluted aquifers has been made. Wells can shlep contaminated water to the surface for treatment. This intensive technology works if contaminants contain neither solvents nor oil and so long as the contamination has not spread. Since fracking fluid and wastewater are excluded and aquifers tend not to be contained, EPA’s assertion seems delusional.
Small producers lose their shirts in these times of low gas prices, so one might wonder why they keep drilling. Two reasons. Leases may mandate that lessees use their drilling rights or lose them. And prices may be low now, but just wait. Prices for natural gas in other areas–Japan, Europe–are much higher. It costs to convert gas to liquefied natural gas for long-distance transport, but producers have their eyes on the prize and preparations are being made. US prices will then rise; it won’t go the other way around.
It wasn’t so long ago that energy prices were rising in the face of looming energy scarcity. Very quickly shale-gas production has reversed that. In the first decade of this century, US gas production went from almost none to more than 10 billion cubic feet per day. In 2012, shale gas was 50 percent of the gas market; by 2035, Flores says, the percentage should swell to three-quarters. If oil imports diminish and “petro dollars” remain in the US, the dollar should be fortified and economic growth fueled by this bonanza. That is, to the extent that the bonanza remains both at low prices and here. And to the extent that climate change does not rudely intervene.
Natural gas may burn cleanly but it remains a fossil fuel. Our dependence on fossil fuels is irrevocably changing our world while we tend to our piquant concerns. Even if less is escaping at wellheads, incalculable amounts of methane now erupt from thawing Arctic tundra and waters. Will depleting a new fossil fuel will be our salvation?
This article is a good indication of where our Government stands on Fracking
The Minister for Energy and Natural Resources Pat Rabbitte called the advent of unconventional gas a “game changer” which must be considered here when he spoke on fracking at an information session at the Royal Academy in Dublin last week. His comments have been welcomed by Tamboran Resources but refuted by local anti fracking group Good Energies Alliance Ireland.
The Minister said “I believe that there is considerable genuine concern about the potential environmental and health considerations related to this activity and that the nature of the debate so far has tended to exacerbate these concerns,” he explained that “decisions taken must be based on transparent assessments of solid evidence. We need to study more of the science and less of the propaganda – on both sides of the argument.”
“The advent of unconventional oil and gas has been a ‘game-changer’ on the US energy market with global repercussions. As the EU is likely to remain a “higher” energy cost region in the future, it is unavoidable that we consider the impacts that unconventional oil and gas production will have on security of supply, energy prices and competitiveness,” he stated.
He said in Ireland we import all our oil and more than 90% of our gas and are vulnerable to interruptions in supplies, “The shale revolution is indeed a game-changer the effects of which must be considered on this side of the Atlantic.”
Speaking about the EPA study he said it will be 2014 before we have the geological and ground water data, impacts and mitigating measures and regulatory issues to inform the policy options here.
He noted that “our shared goal is to maximise the benefits to Ireland from our indigenous oil and gas resources. But we need to ensure that both exploration and production – conventional or unconventional, on land or at sea – are conducted safely and on an environmentally sound basis.”
This week, as President of the EU Council, Pat Rabbitte will host an informal meeting of the EU’s Energy Ministers in Dublin. The meeting will include an initial discussion on unconventional gas and oil.
Tamboran Resources, the company seeking to develop shale gas in North Leitrim welcomed the above comments. A spokesperson for Tamboran told the paper, “Energy costs are hurting households and businesses. Shale gas is one of the few game changers that can truly address these rising costs. The Minister’s reference to the impact of shale gas in the US, where it has resulted in a major boost in competitiveness and energy self-sufficiency, are noteworthy, particularly how shale gas is giving an advantage to America over Europe. The debate in Ireland about shale gas will continue, but we are now starting to see serious consideration of the issues based on science and economics.” The company said they are looking forward to the completion of the EPA study.
Ballinaglera’s Aedin McLoughlin of Good Energies Alliance Ireland said, “The EPA study, as described appears to be an exercise designed to pave the way for fracking.” She said the Minister’s speech “confirms that, despite 1,300 submissions being made to the EPA, the majority of which demanded a study of the health impacts of fracking, Minister Rabbitte confirmed that the study is confined to identifying “best practice in respect of environmental protection for the use of hydraulic fracturing techniques”.
She said it is “extremely disturbing that no health study is mentioned despite the clear wishes of the people.” Disputing that the shale revolution is a “game-changer,” GEAI said “Shale gas does not change the game of burning fossil fuels; it is not clean energy, despite the propaganda of the oil/gas industry; it is not a sustainable source of energy, disappearing once the gas is extracted; the gas produced would belong to the industry, not to the people, and would be sold on the international market at market price. Fracking will not bring cheap gas to Ireland, nor will it make us energy-secure.”
No Fracking Ireland called on the EU Ministers meeting in Dublin Castle this week to join with campaigners to work towards imposing an EU wide ban on hydraulic fracturing. In a statement the anti fracking group called on them to make it clear “that the citizens of the EU will not accept a technocratic imposition of extreme energy policies on the continent.”
A recent survey conducted by Eurobarometer at the request of the European Commission has shown that less than one in ten EU citizens think that unconventional fossil fuel extraction should be prioritised by the EU. Seven out of ten citizens, think that the EU should be prioritising the development of renewable fuels.
The group stated “Thousands in Ireland have already signed petitions calling for a ban on the process and campaigns are growing all over Europe against the development of such an industry. Moves to impose such an industry on the citizens of Europe in an anti-democratic manner by the EU Commission and by national governments will only serve to fuel the rapid development of the anti-fracking movement.”
Shale Gas Benefits and Costs
Tamboran’s desk-top study suggests their operations might give the Republic (the equivalent of) 12 years of current gas consumption, 600 local jobs by 2025, and potential tax revenues up to €4.9 billion. (Tamboran Resources Press release 1st February. 2012)
Up to €4.9 billion equals an average of up to €140m per annum over 35 years – would that cover the cost of adequate regulation, inspection, legal fees and road repairs, social costs, to mention just some?
Set against current and planned/potential employment and foreign exchange earnings for food, drinks, and infant formula the above potential shale gas benefits are negligible. And it should be borne in mind that in 2011 the United States Geological Survey downgraded the Marcellus Shale gas reserves estimate by 80%. The original estimates were supplied by the industry.
(Bloomberg August 23rd 2011)The British Geological Survey has put the likely recoverable Shale Gas in Lancashire at less than 0.47 trillion cu. ft., which is 1/400th of Quadrilla’s stated estimate of 200 trillion cu. ft. (Guardian April 17th 2012).
Employment in Tourism is an important element in the rural and national economy. The NW & Borders region alone shows 15,432 employed, and nationally c. 178,000 employed. (Failte Ireland)
If only a 2% sales drop (from current figures) in the above industries’ earnings occurred over the next 35 years it would mean a loss of c. €8.2 billion. and job losses of 6000. A 5% sales drop (from current figures) would cost €20.5Bn over 35 years with 14,500 jobs lost. In addition, projected growth in sales and employment would be lost.
With our dependence on our clean green image, it is prudent to question if the losses might not be far higher. Moreover, to increase shale gas revenues by expanding the regional coverage will surely have the effect of correspondingly greater losses in exports and jobs. Energy alternatives
In addition to our commitment to the inevitable move towards renewable sources, we need to consider the following.
40% of our energy is used in domestic dwellings. That is a huge amount, and offers a big, clean, and safe opportunity. An investment in conservation measures could employ thousands who are already skilled at building, without any environmental risks, and help meet our emissions reductions commitments.
The energy benefits to be derived from conservation are permanent.
Household energy costs will be cut, freeing up money for spending with consequent jobs multiplier effects.
There is optimism and enthusiasm for long-term sustainable growth in revenues and employment from Ireland’s Agriculture and Food Industry.
This is dependent on preserving Ireland’s reputation as a green, clean environment.
There is at present insufficient independent scientific data available anywhere to make a decision on shale gas. In the meantime, the Precautionary Principle must apply.
The gas will still be there in 20 years time.
Given the controversy surrounding the shale gas industry, there should be no requirement on the part of Irish people to prove anything.
Big Energy front company and survey results falsifiers Cuadrilla are to be granted permission by British government ministers to resume a controversial method known as fracking to exploit what it says are huge shale gas reserves off Lancashire.
Okay, okay, the official line is that “a decision is awaited on this matter”, but I ask you, what is the likelihood of it not happening, eh? The government has already indicated its backing for the move by proposing tax relief for shale gas and producing a gas generation strategy.
Although don’t ask UK Energy Secretary Ed Davey – who presumably was appointed to this role because of his ability to produce vast amounts of hot air – about it, because he is on record as being both in favour of fracking and opposed to it. Often within the same speech.
The advantages of fracking to Cuadrilla itself and to individual government figures are clear: vast amounts of cash, generated by huge taxpayer-funded subsidies received by a private company whilst it simultaneously babbles on about freedom from government interference on the one hand, and massive kickbacks to individual politicians on the other. But what about the advantages to the general public?
Well, for a start, there’s the fact that fracking is so safe. After all, Cuadrilla had to stop test-drilling in 2011 after the process caused two minor earthquakes near Blackpool. Oh, hang on a minute – that’s a disadvantage of fracking. Hmm.
Okay, what about the fact that fracking will safeguard British energy supplies for years to come, bringing down heating bills for the UK consumer and reducing our reliance on all those irresponsible foreign types?
Well, as the Parliamentary Energy and Climate Change Committee stated in a recent report, shale gas would have little downward impact on the level of energy bills in the UK. In fact, a dependence on gas could force household bills much higher than relying on renewable energy and nuclear power.
According to PECCC chairman Lord Deben, the Committee’s its analysis showed that the average household electricity bill could rise by £600 a year by 2050 if the UK relied on “unabated” gas power that had no technology to cut its emissions, as a result of
EU Commissioner for Energy Gúnther Oettinger has informed Fianna Fáil Senator Paschal Mooney that no decisions should be taken on hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” for 10 years. He was responding to questions from Senator Mooney during a visit to Ireland last week.
Speaking at the Oireachtas Committee on Transport, Energy and Communications, Commissioner Gúnther Oettinger told Senator Mooney that he believed no decisions should be taken until the environmental impact of fracking was established and that could take between five and 10 years.
He also confirmed that he is already in discussions with scientists and technical experts, and is in discussions with the Polish Government where fracking has already commenced.
The Commissioner also revealed to Senator Mooney that the extraction of shale gas could be chemical free in a number of years and that he intended to visit the United States next spring to see at first-hand how shale gas is extracted.
“I welcome this recognition by EU Energy Commissioner of the sensitivities involved over this controversial process,” said Senator Mooney.
“The Commissioner is obviously aware of the adverse environmental impact of current practices associated with the extraction of shale gas. The Commissioner is proceeding cautiously before coming to any conclusions. I am delighted that the person charged with Energy Policy in the European Union is consulting widely with the scientific technical and political community as part of an on-going process. I am now confident that he will not rush into decisions that would harm the environment as a result of the fracking process,” the Leitrim Senator said.