The Fracking Fallacy

by Emil Morhardt

The December 4, 2014 issue of the scientific journal Nature takes the position that the current abundance of natural gas in the US derived from horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing may be a much shorter-term phenomenon than most analysts have thought. In both an editorial and an opinion piece (not however in a scientific paper) the journal takes issue with the US Energy Administration’s (USEA) assessment that natural gas production in the US will continue to grow for a quarter century, at least. Nature relies on the opinions of a team of researchers at the University of Texas, and cites a 2013 paper (Patzek, 2012)) by members of the team which now consists of a dozen geoscientists, petroleum engineers, and economists. That paper examines extraction data from 2,057 such wells in the oldest US shale play, the Barnett Shale in Texas, and concludes that they started to decline at an exponential rate in ten years or less, and goes on to predict the total amount of gas that will be produced by their overall sample of 8,294 wells; 10–20 trillion standard cubic feet over the next 50 years.

The team producing the paper talked to Nature’s Mason Inman (2014) about current work that is only beginning to appear at conference presentations and in scientific journals, but which suggests that the major current US shale gas operations would peak in 2020, and decline from then on, producing only half as much gas by 2030 as predicted by the USEA, even under its most conservative scenarios. This discrepancy may be attributable to the more detailed look at producing wells taken by the Texas team, and the USEA is likely to do similar analyses itself. The bottom line, though, seems to be an increase in uncertainty (not a big surprise to anyone who has done scientific research—the more closely one looks at a problem, the more complicated it becomes, usually.) So on might conclude that the research should serve to temper the euphoria on the part of those profiting from the lower gas prices, as well as the frustration felt by producers as they watch gas prices fall, and by environmentalists who fear that the low prices will stifle attempts to replace fossil fuels with renewables.

Patzek, T.W., Male, F., Marder, M., 2013. Gas production in the Barnett Shale obeys a simple scaling theory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110, 19731-19736.

Inman, M. 2014. The Fracking Fallacy. Nature 516,28-30

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