Is the fracking boom an illusion? A report in Nature claims it could turn into a bust decades before experts say it will. According to Tad Patzek, head of the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering, current estimates about how much natural gas is recoverable through fracking are just plain wrong. His report says production will peak in 2020 – just 5 years from now – and then decline rapidly. By 2030, it will be only half as much as the official estimate from the US Energy Information Administration
EIA says shale gas production will climb until 2040 and then remain level for decades to come. President Obama has joined the joyful chorus by declaring that shale gas will power America for the next 100 years. Goldman Sachs says the growth of shale gas supplies has no upper limit. That’s the same Goldman Sachs, by the way, that was hawking derivatives to its customers while shorting them for its own account back in 2008.
Based on these rosy projections, American industry is committing billions to building natural gas electric generating plants and export facilities. Plans are afoot to produce tens of thousands of natural gas powered cars, trucks and buses. All this giddiness fails to recognize that fracking releases so much pollution into the atmosphere that the gas recovered is only slightly less damaging to the environment than coal.
According to Naomi Klein in her book This Changes Everything, fracked wells tend to stop producing in a matter of years, unlike traditional wells which can remain productive for decades. That means energy companies will have to drill more and more new wells just to stay even. Since the first wells are always in areas deemed most likely to be successful, later wells necessarily have less satisfactory results. The EIA estimates assume that all wells will produce the same amount of gas, an approach that UTA’s Patzek says, “leads to results that are way too optimistic.”
Patzek warns that actual production could be even lower than his team’s already conservative forecasts. Using the same type of analysis employed by the EIA, Advanced Resources International, a Washington DC consulting group, issued a glowing report on natural gas reserves in Poland that could be unlocked by fracking. But when actual drilling took place, those reserves turned out to be only 10% as large as the estimate. That is hardly comforting news for a nation that is pinning its energy and political future on natural gas.
Patzek goes on to say that after hitting a peak in the next decade or so, “there’s going to be a pretty fast decline on the other side. That’s when there’s going to be a rude awakening for the United States.” As natural gas prices rise steeply, the nation may end up having more gas-powered industrial plants and vehicles than it will be able to afford to run. “The bottom line is, no matter what happens and how it unfolds,” he says, “it cannot be good for the US economy.”
The real tragedy is that during this period of euphoria brought on by abundant supplies of cheap natural gas from fracking, our society is forgetting the necessity of developing renewable sources of energy. Naomi Klein argues we have no more than 2 decades to amend our behavior before the onset of catastrophic climate change, but instead of heeding her warnings, we are celebrating like the fossil fuel party will never end.