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Will the final blow for America’s shale gas 'revolution' be high prices?

As U.S. natural gas prices flirt with the $4 mark, some skeptics of the so-called shale gas revolution think prices are headed much higher. Such a move would, not surprisingly, seriously undermine the official story that the United States has a century of cheap natural gas waiting for the drillbit.

Several years ago when natural gas began flowing in great quantities from deep shale deposits beneath American soil, it seemed to be the beginning of the end of America’s troubled journey into dependence on energy imports—a journey marked by frequent worry, occasional war and enormous expense.

But, to some people this supposed solution to America’s energy needs has begun to seem as costly to the environment and human health as the country’s dependence on imported energy has been in terms of mental distress, money and blood. It turns out that this new kind of natural gas requires the industrialization of the countryside in order to extract it. And that, say those closest to the action, risks tainting air, land, and drinking water and compromising the health of humans and animals alike.

Well, at least we can say that shale gas is plentiful, cheap, American, and much easier on the climate than coal or oil. It didn’t take too long before people started looking into whether shale gas really was that much easier on the climate. A Cornell University researcher came to the conclusion that shale gas was probably worse for climate change than coal. His conclusion hinged in part on what are called “fugitive emissions”—unintentional, but unavoidable releases of unburned methane into the atmosphere during the hydraulic fracturing operations performed to extract the gas. Methane is some 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

Naturally, the oil and gas industry responded vigorously to the researcher’s findings with its usual ad hominem attacks. But, it also highlighted uncertainties that are always part of any scientific study. This industry is, of course, the same one that has consistently denied the existence of climate change and continues to spend millions trying to convince the public that climate change either isn’t happening, or if it is, it won’t be that bad or if it is, it may actually be good for us.

The industry’s response to the study has, not surprisingly, been met with skepticism. That is befitting an industry that, having spent the last two decades denying climate change, now suddenly embraces it as a reason to produce more natural gas. So, despite the industry’s best efforts, the meme that shale gas is worse than coal is out there and being repeated again and again by opponents of shale gas drilling.

Well, at least we can say that shale gas is plentiful, cheap and American. But, then came the industry campaign to end federal limitations on the export of natural gas. What had been touted by the industry as a fuel that would help lead America to energy independence would henceforth be treated as just another world commodity seeking the highest bidder—even if that bidder is in China, Japan or Great Britain. The industry’s aim, of course, is to get higher prices for its product than customers in the United States can provide. As noted above, natural gas trades at around $4 per thousand cubic feet (mcf) in the United States. That compares to about $17 per mcf for liquefied natural gas delivered to Japan. The price in Europe is around $12.

Well, at least we can say that shale gas is plentiful and cheap. As natural gas prices declined from double digits in 2008 and the shale gas boom proceeded apace, the industry convinced Americans that cheap, plentiful natural gas was the country’s future for a century to come. And, when natural gas prices plunged briefly to $1.82 per mcf last April, even the oil and gas industry began to wonder whether cheap natural gas was really such a great thing. At that price or anything below about $2.50 really, almost no wells were profitable.

Last year independent petroleum geologist Art Berman, while reviewing the financial wreckage of the once flourishing, but now fallen shale gas drillers, noted that the industry was based on:

an improbable business model that has no barriers to entry except access to capital, that provides a source of cheap and abundant gas, and that somehow also allows for great profit. Despite three decades of experience with tight sandstone and coal-bed methane production that yielded low-margin returns and less supply than originally advertised, we are expected to believe that poorer-quality shale reservoirs will somehow provide superior returns and make the U.S. energy independent.

As Berman noted back then: “Improbable stories that great profits can be made at increasingly lower prices have intersected with reality.” The industry proceeded to abandon shale gas plays in favor of tight oil plays which have proven to be profitable with oil prices consistently crisscrossing $100 a barrel in the last two years.

Apparently, price does matter when it comes to natural gas. And so, it seems natural gas won’t be endlessly cheap in America after all. As Berman foretold in an earlier piece, prices would have to rise to between $5 and $6 to make currently paid-for leases profitable from this point forward and between $7 to $8 to make new leases worth pursuing. For comparison, back in the heyday of cheap natural gas, the decade of the 1990s, the average annual U.S. price was $1.92 per mcf, according the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

So what exactly has happened to U.S. natural gas production as reality has set in and companies have withdrawn drills to await prices that might actually be profitable? The answer ought to be troubling to those who are counting on endlessly escalating supplies large enough to displace the majority of oil and coal used in our economy. To wit, U.S. marketed natural gas production has been flat for the last two years.

The trend is so ominous that two industry insiders I know believe that U.S. natural gas production could actually start declining soon and send prices soaring. They say drillers have fallen so far behind that it will be impossible to make up for production lost from existing shale gas wells. Those wells typically see production decline rates of 85 percent after two years. (Translation: Some 85 percent of existing production from shale gas wells must be replaced every two years BEFORE production can grow.)

The future is, of course, unknown to us. But, the present and the past suggest that the so-called shale gas revolution is about to be laid to rest. Yes, shale gas might prevent total American natural gas production from dropping off a cliff even as conventional natural gas production continues to decline. And, at some point shale gas might even allow U.S. production to rise modestly above current levels. But, two things are now abundantly clear: It won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap.

Editorial Notes: Enlarge photo by: Creative Commons/Daniel Foster

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