The “shale revolution” has been often touted as a game changer in energy production (1). Indeed, during the past few years, the increasing production trend of shale (or “tight”) gas in the US has generated a wave of optimism invading the media and the Web. However, not everyone has joined the chorus and several commentators have predicted that the trend would be short lived (see, e.g. Sorrell (2), Laherrere (3), Hughes (4), and Turiel (5)). Some have flatly stated that the effort in gas production in the US is simply a financial bubble, destined to deflate soon (see e.g. Orlov (6) and Berman (7)). Some, such as R. P. Siegel (8) even argue that the bursting of the gas bubble might bring about a financial collapse not unlike the one of 2008.
While the optimism about the future of natural gas seems to be still prevalent, the data show that the gas bubble may be already bursting. The most recent data from EIA (9) show that that the total US gas production has not been growing for the past 1-2 years and that it shows signs to be declining. Fitted with a Gaussian curve, it shows a peak taking place around the end of 2012.
The declining trend is not yet very pronounced and specific data about shale gas production after 2011 are not available in the EIA site (9). However, since the production of conventional gas has been declining since 2007, the production of shale gas may not be declining yet, but it is surely not growing any more at the rates that were common just a few years ago.
In any case, there are data indicating that the decline of total gas production in the US was expected. Drilling rigs for gas has been plummeting down during the past few years, as shown in the following figure (data from Baker and Hughes (10)
Obviously, one can’t extract anything without having drilled first to find it. Since the lifetime of shale gas wells is of the order of a few years, it was unavoidable that the drop in the number of gas drilling rigs would generate in a production decline; which is what we are seeing today.
Basically, these data seem to confirm the interpretation that we are facing a financial “gas bubble”, rather than a robust trend of development of new resources. The gas glut produced by the rush to gas of the past few years has lowered prices to the point that companies have been extracting gas without making any profit, actually losing money in the process (7). That couldn’t last forever.
In the near future, the decline in gas production in the US may lead to an increase in prices which, in turn, may direct the industry to restart drilling for gas. But it remains to be seen if prices high enough to generate a profit are affordable for consumers. In any case, the idea of a “gas revolution” that will bring for us an age of abundance is rapidly fading.
In the end, what we are doing with gas is simply one more step along a path that we are forced to follow. With the gradual disappearance of high grade mineral resources, we must extract the minerals we need from lower grade resources, and this is more expensive and more polluting. That’s exactly what happening with gas but it is much more general. As described in the most recent report of the Club of Rome (Plundering the Planet (11)), the gradual depletion of high grade mineral resources is leading us to a world where mineral commodities will be rarer and more expensive. We will have to adapt to this empty new world.