The fracked-up USA shale gas bubble

Jul 14, 2013 12:00 AM

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.”[1]

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.” [2]

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.”[3] 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…”[4]

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.[5]

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.[6] A more careful look at the actual performance of the shale revolution and its true costs is instructive.

Halliburton Loopholes

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.[7]

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.[8]

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. [9]

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.”[10] 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.[11] 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.[12]

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.” [13]

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.[14]

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.[15]

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.” [16]

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.” [17]