A lot of folks are fervently forecasting that shale gas and oil production is a bubble about to pop, possibly producing an economic collapse similar to the one in 2008. Earlier this week, the left-leaning Center for Research on Globalization in Montreal dismissed the shale revolution as a “Ponzi scheme” and “this decade’s version of the Dotcom bubble.” In a column last year for The Guardian, Nafeez Ahmed of the Institute for Policy Research and Development cited studies predicting that U.S. shale gas production will likely peak in 2015 and oil production in 2017. In a July 2013 report for the Club of Rome—the same folks who brought us 1972’s doom-mongering classic, The Limits to Growth—the University of Florence chemist Ugo Bardi declared that the “idea that a ‘gas revolution’ that will bring for us an age of abundance is rapidly fading” because “the data show that the gas bubble may be already bursting.” A month later, Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute said, “It turns out there are only a few ‘plays’ or geological formations in the US from which shale gas is being produced; in virtually all of them, except the Marcellus (in Pennsylvania and West Virginia), production rates are already either in plateau or decline.”
So was President Barack Obama wrong in 2012, when he claimed, “We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years”? Perhaps not.
The renaissance of oil and gas production in the United States has largely been the result of applying the technique of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), which releases vast quantities of hydrocarbons trapped in tight shale formations. The bubble theorists make much of the fact that production tends to drop more rapidly in fracked wells than in conventional ones, forcing the frackers to drill more holes just to keep up. They overlook the fact that drillers are working ever faster and cheaper and that newer wells tend to be more productive than earlier wells. How do we know this? Because the number of drill rigs has not increased in most shale fields, yet production continues to go up.
So what about Heinberg’s claim that “production rates are already either in plateau or decline”? He’s just wrong. The September drilling productivity report from the federal Energy Information Administration (EIA) notes that since 2013, that gas production is up in every one of the “plays” cited by Heinberg. Production in the Bakken region of North Dakota grew 8 percent; the Eagle Ford, Permian, and Haynesville regions in Texas increased 15, 7, and 97 percent, respectively; the Niobrara region in Wyoming and Colorado rose by 29 percent; and the Utica and Marcellus regions in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia surged 142 and 47 percent. “We’ve been tracking this for 10 years, and recovery rates have gone up dramatically,” says EIA forecaster Philip Budzik.
Meanwhile, the EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2014 shows the potential U.S. oil and gas resource bases are increasing, not decreasing. Bubble forecasters insist those estimates are way off-base. They point to the EIA’s recent big flub when it came to estimating how much petroleum might be pumped from the Monterey shale formations in California. The agency initially prognosticated that as much as 13.7 billion barrels of oil might be produced, but it cut its estimate by 96 percent, to 600 million barrels, once it recognized the extraction challenges posed by the complicated geology of southern California. Whoops!
That’s bad, but in the scope of estimates it’s a blip, not a fatal error.
Back in 2000, the EIA Outlook report estimated that the U.S.’s technically recoverable petroleum resources were 124 billion barrels; it put natural gas resources at 1,111 trillion cubic feet (tcf). (“Technically recoverable” basically means that the resource can be extracted using current technology if the price is right.) Proved oil and natural gas reserves amounted to 22 billion barrels and 176 tcf, respectively. (“Proved” generally means the amount of resources that can be recovered from the deposit with a reasonable level of certainty.) When it came to shale and other tight rock formations, the 2000 report estimated that only 2 billion barrels of oil and 50 tcf of natural gas were technically recoverable. “Basically, in 2000 no one was even thinking that you could produce this stuff,” says Budzik.
How time and technological progress make fools of all prognosticators! The 2014 EIA Outlook estimates that the U.S.’s technically recoverable oil resources are 238 billion barrels and natural gas resources are 2,266 tcf. Proved U.S. petroleum reserves have increased from their 2009 nadir of 19 billion barrels to over 30 billion barrels, and proved natural gas reserves are at 334 tcf now. In other words, estimates of technically recoverable U.S. resources of both oil and gas have nearly doubled in the past 15 years. Proved oil reserves have increased 50 percent, while proved gas reserves have also nearly doubled. Technically recoverable resources from shale and other tight rocks is now estimated to be 59 billion barrels of crude and 903 tcf of gas—a 30-fold and 18-fold increase, respectively, over the 2000 assessments.
Take the figure of 2,266 tcf of natural gas. Last year, Americans burned through 26 tcf of natural gas. At that rate, the estimated resource would last 87 years. Not the 100 years claimed by the president, but close enough for government work.
While EIA reserve and resource estimates have been trending steeply upward over the past decade and half, the agency tries to take into account uncertainties by sketching out scenarios to 2040 in which domestic oil and gas supplies are either 50 percent higher or lower than its reference case. Production of shale gas and oil is the key difference in the scenarios. In the high supply case, technically recoverable crude and gas plus proved reserves amount to 431 billion barrels and 3,683 tcf. Consequently, domestic oil production rises to 13 million barrels per day before 2035 and imports decline to near zero. Tight oil production peaks at 8.5 million barrels per day in 2035 compared to the reference case peak of 4.8 million barrels in 2021. Cumulative tight oil production reaches 75 billion barrels, up from 44 billion in the reference case.
In the low supply scenario, crude oil totals 210 barrels and gas totals 1,814 tcf; oil production reaches 9.1 million barrels per day in 2017 and then slowly falls to 6.6 million barrels per day in 2040. Tight oil production peaks in 2016 at 4.3 million barrels per day with a cumulative production of 34 billion barrels. Interestingly, the difference in price in the high and low supply scenarios is only $20 per barrel—$125 versus $145 (using 2012 dollars) in 2040.
The shale bubble proponents essentially are betting on the EIA low production scenario. They will be proven right if shale oil production does peak in the next year or two. We shall soon see. “The history of the industry is that we are always running out,” says Budzik. “So long as we have a well functioning economic system that allows the price mechanism to adjust and encourages innovation we will see the resource base grow rather than diminish.” Rising prices at the beginning of the 21st century did, in fact, promote more exploration and faster technological progress, resulting in the shale revolution the U.S. is currently enjoying. If this dynamic is not unduly hampered, it’s a good bet that the prophets of bubble-bursting doom are wrong yet again.