By Asher, posted Mar 14, 2013:
I can’t imagine it’s easy being a journalist these days, tasked with covering the explosive growth of US shale gas and oil (tight oil) drilling, and the even more explosive and ubiquitous claims that these unconventional resources are going to entirely transform the world energy picture and provide the US with energy independence and cheap prices for decades to come.
For one thing, the spread of fracking (the colloquial term for the process of multi-stage hydraulic fracturing in horizontal wells which makes it possible to tap these previously inaccessible resources) is a relatively new phenomenon, which means that until just recently there hasn’t been a lot of historical performance data to review against claims of future production.
For another, taking a critical look at the claims of industry and their boosters almost requires a degree in petroleum and natural gas geology in order to grock things like EURs (estimated ultimate recovery) and IPs (initial productivity), proven and unproven technically recoverable resources, individual well and field decline rates, and so on.
And so it’s somewhat understandable that media coverage (with a few notable exceptions) of the fracking debate has largely parroted industry claims about the long-term boon shale gas and oil will provide—focusing instead on the very real, but incomplete, controversy over environmental and human health impacts.
But while it may be understandable, that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable, considering what’s at stake here.
Case in point: Harper’s Magazine recently published “Bakken Business” – a lengthy and thought-provoking piece by award-winning environmental author and journalist Richard Manning on “the price of North Dakota’s fracking boom.” While the article does a good job of examining the impacts of the fracking frenzy on people and the environment, it badly misrepresents the potential of the Bakken Formation. A few examples:
"It no longer matters where an oil man drills a well." This is patently untrue. The Bakken, as in all other shale plays, has “sweet spots” which are much more productive than most of the acreage – these are targeted first.
"Every single well drilled in the area has a 99 percent chance of producing oil for about thirty years in predictable and tapering amounts." This is unsubstantiated, given that very few wells are older than 4 or 5 years. Moreover – as documented in great detail in our recent report, “Drill, Baby, Drill?” – wells decline by 85% after 3 years on average, and 40% of production has to be replaced each year by more drilling to maintain field output.
The Bakken is a “25,000-square-mile slab.” Even Continental Resources, the largest corporate promoter of the Bakken, says it covers 14,700 square miles. Sweet spots cover much smaller areas.
“The Bakken will support 35,000 and 45,000 profitable oil wells.” The EIA estimates 11,725 locations including those already drilled. Manning then states one well can be drilled per 2 or 3 square miles, which, if you do the math, is even fewer locations than the EIA estimates.
"Current extraction methods have put as much as 24 billion barrels within reach." This is directly from Continental Resources website with no substantiation. The US Geological Survey has estimated 3-4.3 billion barrels as technically recoverable. The EIA estimate is 5.4 billion barrels.
“The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates there are 220 billion barrels of shale oil now technically recoverable in the United States, nearly ten times current proved reserves.” This is incorrect – the EIA’s estimate of unproved technically recoverable shale oil is 33.226 billion barrels, 15% of what Manning claims here.
It may seem like quibbling over numbers, but numbers matter. In this case they are deadly serious.
It is true that the oil & gas industry has accomplished a remarkable feat in reversing declines in US oil production (though production is still nearly 40% below the all time high in 1970) and growing domestic gas production to record high levels. But because of high depletion rates of shale wells and diminishing returns as the best locations are drilled off first, these gains will be short lived and come with increasingly high financial, environmental, and social costs.
And yet few people have pulled back the curtain on the claims of long-term abundance. In fact, policymakers, business leaders, utilities, and investors are banking on shale oil & gas being both plentiful and cheap for the foreseeable future – meaning that precious time and resources are going to be wasted fracking every last well we can until the whole shale bubble goes bust.
That is, unless we can see past the hype. Which is where we need you, Fourth Estate. Please step it up.
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