Fracking won’t lead to a U.S. energy golden age

Increased production of oil and gas from horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing is stirring visions of a new American golden age of energy independence. This current energy euphoria was set out by Ed Morse, head commodities analyst at Citigroup, in the Wall Street Journal. “The United States,” he said, “has become the fastest-growing oil and gas producer in the world and is likely to remain so for the rest of this decade and into the 2020s. North America is becoming the new Middle East.”

This was echoed by Dan Yergin, CEO of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, in the Washington Post, “The outline of a new world oil map is emerging, and it is centered not on the Middle East but on the Western Hemisphere,” he said.

Gov. Mitt Romney’s campaign has joined this view with its Energy Independence by 2020 plan for North America released on Aug. 22. The plan blames the current administration for limiting oil and gas drilling, although a report from the Congressional Budget Office, requested by vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, said that 70 percent of all U.S. oil and gas areas are available for drilling.

The Romney plan proposes widespread “drill baby, drill” policies on- and offshore, with fast-track permit control given to the states.

“We’re not going to have to buy oil from the Middle East, Venezuela or any other place we don’t want to,” Romney said at a campaign stop in New Mexico. “We may even be an exporter of energy, considering all our resources.”

But all this energy optimism ignores the fact that future oil and gas supplies depend on exploitation of “unconventional” petroleum resources, described in the industry as “tight oil and gas.” Yergin’s oil map starts with the low-grade solid bitumen deposits in the Alberta oil sands, continues through the impermeable U.S. shale deposits, which require expensive hydraulic horizontal drilling otherwise known as fracking and on to the really expensive offshore oil and gas in Brazil’s Santos Basin, at depths from which oil has not previously been produced.

Michael Klare, author of the book “Blood and Oil,” refers to these new deposits as “tough oil,” material too hard to be extracted using standard technology or embedded in forbidding locations. Conventional, easier-to-extract oil and gas continue their historic decline in North America.

This problem is illustrated in the large U.S. fracking regions such as the Barnett, Fayettville and Haynesville reservoirs. A report from geologists Lynn Pittinger and E. Berman shows that these natural gas deposits are not commercial at current natural gas prices because of the high capital costs of land, drilling and completion.

Their analysis indicates that the estimated ultimate recovery per well is approximately one-half of the values commonly presented by operators. The average gas EUR per well for the most active operators is 1.3 billion cubic feet in the Barnett, 1.1 Bcf in the Fayetteville and 3.0 Bcf in the Haynesville shale gas plays. At current gas prices, total revenue from the average well is less than the $8 to $10 million capital cost of a properly cased fracking well, not to mention operating costs.

Major oil companies are entering into shale-gas drilling in order to protect leases which require drilling and to add to reported reserves. Some wells produce oil and natural gas liquids, which get higher prices and offset the losses from natural gas production.

There are significant environmental issues with fracking wells, including water usage and possible contamination of ground water. Properly cased and expensive wells have proven safety for ground water over two decades of drilling. But large quantities of fresh water are consumed for fracking and for the oil sands bitumen of Alberta.

In the unlikely event of a golden age with large new domestic supplies of fossil fuels, their consumption will only add more heat-trapping greenhouse gases to our atmosphere. Instead of consuming more of this tough oil and gas, we will need tough choices involving energy conservation and more low-emission energy sources, like nuclear power and the renewables such as wind and solar.