Quantcast

How Fracking's False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future

Energy

Post Carbon Institute

By Tom Whipple

Richard Heinberg has been following and writing about peak oil for a long time. In the last decade, he has published 10 books on peak oil and related resource depletion topics as well as given some 500 lectures warning about the hard times ahead. The subtitle of his recent book, “How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future” captures the theme of Snake Oil in a lucid phrase. This is an angry book, for it is intended as a rejoinder to the avalanche of half-truths and optimistic estimates concerning the future of our energy resources which have filled our media in the last few years.

As the evidence accumulates that man is destroying the atmosphere by ever-increasing carbon emissions and bankrupting his economic systems by continued reliance on increasingly expensive oil, realistic appraisals of our true energy situation are being lost. In recent years, numerous institutions that should know better, major universities and widely respected publications have joined the chorus talking about “energy independence for America” and a century of oil and gas just waiting to be tapped.

Snake Oil starts with a review of the fundamentals that most “peakists” have come to understand and accept. Peak oil is about the rate of supply, not estimated size of underground resources. There is a lot of oil and gas still in the ground, but only a small percentage will ever be extracted at prices people can afford to pay. Production from existing oil fields is declining by 4-5 percent annually and demand is increasing by about a million barrels per day (b/d) each year. To keep the lid on costs, the world will have to come up with 5 million b/d of new oil production each year for the foreseeable future.

It takes energy to produce energy, so when you spend more than you get back it is time to quit extracting. As the Middle East gets hotter, both physically and politically, oil exporters are consuming an increasing share of their own production to keep their people cool and off the streets. These and other underlying realities are largely ignored by those enamored with recent (admittedly impressive) gains in U.S. oil production and optimistic talk of billions and sometimes trillions of barrels of oil waiting to be produced.

Heinberg acknowledges that the fracking boom has produced some spectacular numbers, with U.S. oil production increasing by 766,000 barrels b/d in 2012 and likely to do about the same this year if current trends continue. The problem, of course, comes from projecting this spectacular growth into the more distant future. There are simply too many factors, especially rapid decline rates and lower initial production rates, as the best drilling locations are used up.

The heart of Snake Oil is directed at countering the optimistic projections for production of oil and gas by hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Fracked oil and gas production is simply another, albeit expensive, resource that will climb to a peak and then deplete away just like all the others.

Using the work done by two independent geologists—Arthur Berman of Texas and David Hughes of Canada, who have extensively analyzed the production of fracked oil wells across the U.S.—Heinberg and his associates conclude that “shale gas and oil wells have proven to deplete quickly, the best fields have already been tapped, and no major new field discoveries are expected; thus with average per-well productivity declining and ever-more wells (and fields) required simply to maintain production, an 'exploration treadmill' limits the long-term potential of shale resources.”

With per-well production decline rates of between 81 and 90 percent in the first 24 months, wells must be constantly replaced by new ones just to keep production flat. The higher production gets, the more new replacement wells have to be drilled. Before the end of the decade, this bubble will collapse on its own accord and fracked oil and gas production will begin dropping. As usual there are disputes as to just when this downturn will begin, but the best available analysis suggest that four or five years from now will be the time period when fracked oil peaks in the U.S. and a few years later for gas.

The analysis shows that decades of abundant fracked oil and gas production is simply not in the cards that we see today.

An interesting chapter in the book deals with just who has benefitted from the shale boom. Although thousands of jobs have been created and some landowners have profited handsomely from lending their property for drilling, local governments have yet to fully comprehend the damage that boom towns have done to their communities and that heavy trucks have done to their roads. Service companies that sell equipment performing the actual fracking have done well. The drillers, including large ones such as ExxonMobil, who assume the ultimate risk, have been losing money on natural gas and only some are making money on oil due to the high prices.

Heinberg concludes that the real winners, however, are the investment banks that have earned huge fees for raising the money that has fueled the boom.

The book is clearly a contribution to the literature of peak oil, for it updates recent developments and does an effective job in separating reality from the hype of the financial media.

Heinberg leave us with two somewhat contradictory thoughts:

  • Hydrocarbons are so abundant that, if we burn a substantial portion of them, we risk a climate catastrophe beyond imagining.
  • There aren’t enough economically accessible, high-quality hydrocarbons to maintain world economic growth for much longer.

Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future is published by Post Carbon Institute.

Originally posted at Falls Church News-Press.

Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.

——–

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Rebecca Burgess came up with the idea of a fibersheds project to develop an eco-friendly, locally sourced wardrobe. Nicolás Boullosa / CC BY 2.0

By Tara Lohan

If I were to open my refrigerator, the origins of most of the food wouldn't be too much of a mystery — the milk, cheese and produce all come from relatively nearby farms. I can tell from the labels on other packaged goods if they're fair trade, non-GMO or organic.

Read More Show Less
A television crew reports on Hurricane Dorian while waves crash against the Banana River sea wall. Paul Hennessy / SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty Images

By Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope

Some good news, for a change, about climate change: When hundreds of newsrooms focus their attention on the climate crisis, all at the same time, the public conversation about the problem gets better: more prominent, more informative, more urgent.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
U.S. Senators Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.) met with Bill Gates on Nov. 7 to discuss climate change and ways to address the challenge. Senator Chris Coons

The U.S. Senate's bipartisan climate caucus started with just two members, a Republican from Indiana and a Democrat from Delaware. Now it's up to eight members after two Democrats, one Independent and three more Republicans joined the caucus last week, as The Hill reported.

Read More Show Less
EPA scientists survey aquatic life in Newport, Oregon. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing to significantly limit the use of science in agency rulemaking around public health, the The New York Times reports.

Read More Show Less
A timelapse video shows synthetic material and baby fish collected from a plankton sample from a surface slick taken off Hawaii's coast. Honolulu Star-Advertiser / YouTube screenshot

A team of researchers led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration didn't intend to study plastic pollution when they towed a tiny mesh net through the waters off Hawaii's West Coast. Instead, they wanted to learn more about the habits of larval fish.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Two silver-backed chevrotain caught on camera trap. The species has only recently been rediscovered after being last seen in 1990. GWC / Mongabay

By Jeremy Hance

VIETNAM, July 2019 – I'm chasing a ghost, I think not for the first time, as night falls and I gather up my gear in a hotel in a village in southern Vietnam. I pack my camera, a bottle of water, and a poncho; outside the window I can see a light rain.

Read More Show Less
(L) Selma Three Stone Engagement Ring. (R) The Greener Diamond Farm Project. MiaDonna

By Bailey Hopp

If you had to choose a diamond for your engagement ring from below or above the ground, which would you pick … and why would you pick it? This is the main question consumers are facing when picking out their diamond engagement ring today. With a dramatic increase in demand for conflict-free lab-grown diamonds, the diamond industry is shifting right before our eyes.

Read More Show Less
Flooding in New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina on Sept. 11, 2005. NOAA Photo Library / Lieut. Commander Mark Moran

The most destructive hurricanes are three times more frequent than they were a century ago, new research has found, and this can be "unequivocally" linked to the climate crisis.

Read More Show Less