Future of Fracking Not Nearly as Bright as Forecasted
Post Carbon Institute has published a report calling into question the production statistics touted by promoters of hydraulic fracturing or fracking. By calculating the production numbers on a well-by-well basis for shale gas and tight oil fields throughout the U.S., Post Carbon concludes that the future of fracking is not nearly as bright as industry cheerleaders suggest.
The report, Drilling Deeper: A Reality Check on U.S. Government Forecasts for a Lasting Tight Oil & Shale Gas Boom, authored by Post Carbon fellow J. David Hughes, updates an earlier report he authored for Post Carbon in 2012.
Hughes analyzed the production stats for seven tight oil basins and seven gas basins, which account for 88 percent and 89 percent of current shale gas production.
Among the key findings:
- By 2040, production rates from the Bakken Shale and Eagle Ford Shale will be less than a tenth of that projected by the Energy Department. For the top three shale gas fields—the Marcellus Shale, Eagle Ford and Bakken—production rates from these plays will be about a third of the U.S. Energy Infromation Administration (EIA) forecast.
- The three year average well decline rates for the seven shale oil basins measured for the report range from an astounding 60 percent to 91 percent. That means over those three years, the amount of oil coming out of the wells decreases by that percentage. This translates to 43 percent to 64 percent of their estimated ultimate recovery dug out during the first three years of the well's existence.
- Four of the seven shale gas basins are already in terminal decline in terms of their well productivity: the Haynesville Shale, Fayetteville Shale, Woodford Shale and Barnett Shale.
- The three year average well decline rates for the seven shale gas basins measured for the report ranges between 74 percent to 82 percent.
- The average annual decline rates in the seven shale gas basins examined equals between 23 percent and 49 percent. Translation: between one-quarter and one-half of all production in each basin must be replaced annually just to keep running at the same pace on the drilling treadmill and keep getting the same amount of gas out of the earth.
The report’s findings differ vastly from the forward-looking projections published by the EIA, a statistical sub-unit of the U.S.Department of Energy (DOE).
The findings also come just days after Houston Chronicle reporter Jennifer Dlouhy reported that in a briefing over the summer, EIA Administrator Adam Sieminski told her it was EIA’s job to “tell the industry story” about tight oil and shale gas production.
“We want to be able to tell, in a sense, the industry story,” Sieminski told Dlouhy, as reported in the Chronicle. “This is a huge success story in many ways for the companies and the nation, and having that kind of lag in such a rapidly moving area just simply isn't allowing that full story to be told.”
The independent story, though, opens up a window to tell a different tale.
“The Department of Energy’s forecasts—the ones everyone is relying on to guide our energy policy and planning—are overly optimistic based on what the actual well data are telling us,” Hughes—a geoscientist who formerly analyzed energy resources for over three decades for the Geological Survey of Canada—said in a press release about the reporting’s findings.
“By asking the right questions you soon realize that if the future of U.S. oil and natural gas production depends on resources in the country’s deep shale deposits … we are in for a big disappointment in the longer term.”
“Sweet Spots” and the “Drilling Treadmill”
According to Hughes’ number-crunching, four of the top seven shale gas fields have already peaked: the Haynesville, Barnett, Woodford and Fayetteville. But three of those are actually doing the opposite and increasing their production: the Marcellus, Eagle Ford and Bakken, though the latter two are primarily fracked oil fields.
Further, the report points to the phenomenon first discussed in the original Post Carbon report back in 2012: that of the “drilling treadmill,” or having to drill more and more wells just to keep production levels flat. The report argues that drillers hit the “sweet spots” first to maximize their production, do so for a few years until production begins to decline terminally, and then start drilling in spaces with less rich oil and gas bounties.
A case in point: Post Carbon projects the Bakken and Eagle Ford Shale basins—the two most productive oil plays—will produce 730,000 barrels of oil per day in 2040. EIA, meanwhile, says 1.04 million barrels per day of oil will be pumped from the ground at that point.
“One of the keys to the so-called ‘shale revolution’ is supposed to be technological innovation, making plays ever-more productive in the face of the steep well decline rates and the move from ‘sweet spots’ to lower quality parts of plays,” wrote Post Carbon in an introduction to the report for members of the media. “But despite years of concerted efforts, average well productivity has gone flat in all the major shale gas plays except the Marcellus.”
The Bakken and Eagle Ford serve as Exhibit A and Exhibit B of the mechanics of how the “sweet spot” phenomenon works in action.
“Field declines from the Bakken and Eagle Ford are 45% and 38% per year, respectively,” wrote Hughes in the executive summary. “This is the amount of production that must be replaced each year with more drilling in order to maintain production at current levels.”
For gas, it’s the same story, centering around “sweet spots” and the “drilling treadmill.”
EIA Guessing at Numbers and Figures?
So where do the EIA’s rosy statistics originate? Post Carbon Institute posed its own questions directly to the EIA, while also saying one has to look at the difference between proven and unproven reserves to understand EIA's data.
“Shale gas producers and the EIA report ‘proved reserves,’ a definition with legal weight describing hydrocarbon deposits recoverable with current technology under current economic conditions,” they write. “The EIA also estimates ‘unproved technically recoverable resources’ which have loose geological constraints and no implied price required for extraction, and hence are uncertain.”
Also implicit in the rosy numbers and figures is that cash will continue to be injected into capital-intensive shale gas and oil production operations.
So far, the industry and its financiers have received a blessing from the U.S.Federal Reserve: zero percent interest rates to obtain junk debt bonds to finance fracking since 2008. But with the Federal Reserve considering hiking rates, economics could change quickly on the feasibility of continued unfettered shale oil and gas extraction.
Hughes said his findings are based on “best case scenarios” and rule out external conditions that could reverse the drilling treadmill, including hiked interest rates.
“Other factors that could limit production are public pushback as a result of health and environmental concerns, and capital constraints that could result from lower oil or gas prices or higher interest rates,” he wrote. “As such factors have not been included in this analysis, the findings of this report represent a ‘best case’ scenario for market, capital, and political conditions.”
False Premises, False Promises
The Obama Administration’s climate and energy policy rides on the assumption of decades more domestic oil and gas obtained from fracking.
Indeed, the shale boom has created a revolution of sorts for corporate interests across the supply chain from the world of plastics to manufacturing to the pipeline business and far beyond, creating something akin to a “complex.”
Asher Miller, executive director for Post Carbon Institute, said the enthusiasm in what to some may seem like a nearly infinite future of shale oil and gas is a “false premise” that has manufactured “false promises.” Hughes echoed these sentiments in the report's conclusion.
“The assumption that natural gas will be cheap and abundant for the foreseeable future has prompted fuel switching from coal to gas, along with investment in new generation and gas distribution infrastructure, investment in new North American manufacturing infrastructure, and calls for exporting the shale gas bounty to higher-priced markets in Europe and Asia,” he wrote.
“Given these assumptions—and the investments being made and planned because of them—it is important to understand the long-term supply limitations of U.S.shale gas,” Hughes suggests.
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Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>