Natural gas: The fracking fallacy

The United States is banking on decades of abundant natural gas to power its economic resurgence. That may be wishful thinking.

When US President Barack Obama talks about the future, he foresees a thriving US economy fuelled to a large degree by vast amounts of natural gas pouring from domestic wells. “We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years,” he declared in his 2012 State of the Union address.

Obama’s statement reflects an optimism that has permeated the United States. It is all thanks to fracking — or hydraulic fracturing — which has made it possible to coax natural gas at a relatively low price out of the fine-grained rock known as shale. Around the country, terms such as ‘shale revolution’ and ‘energy abundance’ echo through corporate boardrooms.

Companies are betting big on forecasts of cheap, plentiful natural gas. Over the next 20 years, US industry and electricity producers are expected to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in new plants that rely on natural gas. And billions more dollars are pouring into the construction of export facilities that will enable the United States to ship liquefied natural gas to Europe, Asia and South America.

All of those investments are based on the expectation that US gas production will climb for decades, in line with the official forecasts by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). As agency director Adam Sieminski put it last year: “For natural gas, the EIA has no doubt at all that production can continue to grow all the way out to 2040.”

But a careful examination of the assumptions behind such bullish forecasts suggests that they may be overly optimistic, in part because the government’s predictions rely on coarse-grained studies of major shale formations, or plays. Now, researchers are analysing those formations in much greater detail and are issuing more-conservative forecasts. They calculate that such formations have relatively small ‘sweet spots’ where it will be profitable to extract gas.

The results are “bad news”, says Tad Patzek, head of the University of Texas at Austin’s department of petroleum and geosystems engineering, and a member of the team that is conducting the in-depth analyses. With companies trying to extract shale gas as fast as possible and export significant quantities, he argues, “we’re setting ourselves up for a major fiasco”.

That could have repercussions well beyond the United States. If US natural-gas production falls, plans to export large amounts overseas could fizzle. And nations hoping to tap their own shale formations may reconsider. “If it begins to look as if it’s going to end in tears in the United States, that would certainly have an impact on the enthusiasm in different parts of the world,” says economist Paul Stevens of Chatham House, a London-based think tank.

If natural-gas prices were to follow the scenario that the EIA used in its 2014 annual report, the Texas team forecasts that production from the big four plays would peak in 2020, and decline from then on. By 2030, these plays would be producing only about half as much as in the EIA’s reference case. Even the agency’s most conservative scenarios seem to be higher than the Texas team’s forecasts.

“Obviously they do not agree very well with the EIA results,”

says Patzek.

Read more: Nature

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