Fracking: A new dawn for misplaced optimism

Despite the claims, shale gas isn't all it's fracked up to be

Share

You would think we were swimming in oil. The International Energy Agency's (IEA) latest World Energy Outlook forecasts that the United States will outstrip Saudi Arabia as the world's largest producer by 2017, becoming "all but self-sufficient in net terms" in energy production. While the "peak oil" pessimists are clearly wrong, so is a simplistic picture of fossil fuel abundance.

When the IEA predicts an increase in "oil production" from 84 million barrels a day in 2011 to 97 in 2035, it is talking about "natural gas liquids and unconventional sources", which includes a big reliance on "fracking" for shale gas. Conventional oil output will stay largely flat, or fall.

The IEA has been exposed before as having, under US pressure, artificially inflated official reserve figures. And now US energy consultants Ruud Weijermars and Crispian McCredie say there is strong "basis for reasonable doubts about the reliability and durability of US shale gas reserves". The New York Times found that state geologists, industry lawyers and market analysts privately questioned "whether companies are intentionally, and even illegally, overstating the productivity of their wells and the size of their reserves." And former UK chief government scientist Sir David King has concluded that the industry had overstated world oil reserves by about a third. In Nature, he dismissed notions that a shale gas boom would avert an energy crisis, noting that production at wells drops by as much as 90 per cent within the first year.

The rapid decline rates make shale gas distinctly unprofitable. Arthur Berman, a former Amoco petroleum geologist, cites the Eagle Ford shale, Texas, where the decline rate is so high that simply to keep production flat, they will have to drill "almost 1,000 wells" a year, requiring "about $10bn or $12bn a year just to replace supply". In all, "it starts to approach the amount of money needed to bail out the banking industry. Where is that money to come from?"

In September, the leader of the US shale gas revolution, Chesapeake Energy, sold $6.9bn of gas fields and pipelines to stave off collapse. Four months ago Exxon's CEO, Rex Tillerson, told a private meeting: "We're making no money. It's all in the red." The worst-case scenario is that several large oil companies at once face financial distress. Then, says Berman, "you may have a couple of big bankruptcies or takeovers and everybody pulls back, all the money evaporates, all the capital goes away."

Far from fuelling prosperity, the gas glut will generate an unsustainable debt bubble whose bursting precipitates a supply collapse and price spike. The New Economics Foundation estimates the arrival of "economic peak oil" – when the costs of supply exceeds the price economies can pay without significantly disrupting economic activity – in around 2014/15. Black gold is not the answer.

The author is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research and Development

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key Stage 1

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key S...

Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher We have a fantastic special n...

Tradewind Recruitment: History Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an 11-18 all ability co-educat...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: Every privatised corner of the NHS would be taken back into public ownership

Philip Pullman
 

Errors & Omissions: Magna Carta, sexing bishops and ministerial aides

John Rentoul
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee