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Is the Fracking Boom Coming to an End?

Energy

Since fracking began its boom period in the last decade, its supporters have promoted it as the answer to all of  the U.S.'s energy issues. It would free us from dependence on foreign oil, they said, thereby strengthening national security. And in fact, the U.S. has become the world's largest exporter of fossil fuels, while prices at the gas pump have dropped steeply as fracked oil and gas production has exploded. States like Texas, Colorado, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Ohio have welcomed frackers to their shale deposits, even though others, such as New York and Maryland, have resisted the lure due to concerns about fracking's impacts on human health and the environment.


Fracking took off in the U.S. around 2009, but there are signs the boom could be ending. Image credit: EIA/Bloomberg

But could the gravy train be derailing? While production is still at record levels, there are signs that should worry any company or economy that is heavily invested in the fracking process.

Compared to conventional wells, fracked wells tend to be initially productive but taper off quickly and then are shut down as operators move to new locations. And that is starting to catch up with them.

"Production has to come down because rigs drilling for oil are down 57 percent this year,” James Williams, president of Arkansas-based energy consultancy WTRG Economicstold Bloomberg News. “Countering that is the fact that the rigs we’re still using are more efficient and drilling in areas where you get higher production. So that has delayed the decline.”

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), some of the largest shale deposits will see a downturn in their output, and very soon. Output will shrink 1.3 percent this month. Texas' Eagle Ford shale deposit will be pumping 49,000 barrels less a day in July, the EIA projects, while North Dakota's Bakken shale region will lose 29,000 barrels a day. Overall, the EIA is projected that fracking will fall by 93,000 barrels a day in July, the biggest drop since the onset of the boom in 2009.

Not only are existing wells less productive, but remaining shale gas and oil becomes progressively harder and more expensive to extract. In Montana, whose northeast corner sits over a section of the Bakken shale region, no major new drilling rig has opened since April for the first time since at least 2009. Meanwhile, OPEC has been playing a game of chicken with U.S. oil producers, refusing to cut its rate of production and driving plummeting prices. Even though drilling technology is improving, the lower prices make it less attractive to go after the harder-to-reach deposits, as the price per barrel has dropped below what's needed to make these expensive wells profitable.

In North Dakota and Texas, two states whose economies roared into overdrive due to fracking, layoffs have become epidemic, with tens of thousands of jobs disappearing in the last year. Drilling companies in North Dakota are ending the lavish perks they once offered to lure workers to the isolated region.

In January, the rig count in North Dakota reached the lowest level in five years with 157 compared to 189 a year earlier. According to CNN, MBI Energy Services CEO Jim Arthaud said, “My prediction is we’re down to 50 rigs by June.”

There were actually 82 active rigs as of this week, which is being touted as good news.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.

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