The Big Story fracking
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prefer not to acknowledge that the new horizontal fracking methods are a very different beast from the smaller-scale vertical fracturing of the past.
Shale oil and gas basins worldwide (May 2013)
In response, critics have been quick to point out the lobbying influence of the oil and gas industry. The World Development Movement found that a third of British government ministers had direct links to fossil fuel corporations and the banks that finance them.6 A recent investigation by the Vancouver Sun found that oil and gas lobbyists are more successful than any other industry at getting time with politicians in the shalerich Canadian state of British Columbia.7
As knowledge of the practice has grown, resistance to fracking has sprung up in almost every country where it has been launched. Bans or moratoria on the practice are currently in place in France, Ireland, Romania, Bulgaria, Luxembourg, the Czech Republic and parts of Australia, Canada, Spain, Argentina and the US. However, many campaigners fear that these measures may only be temporary, as governments prepare regulation to supposedly make fracking ‘safe’.
The US fracking experience is often presented as a success story, where the technology has been tried and tested in preparation for its spread around the world. In reality, the technique has been rushed into large-scale use with inadequate environmental monitoring and regulation and small consideration for the long-term impacts. Only time will tell what the real environmental and economic consequences of the great US shale gas experiment will be – but the signs do not look good. Planet for shale: how much is out there? The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported in June 2013 that it had identified 345 billion barrels of shale oil and 207 trillion cubic metres (tcm) of shale gas, in a survey of 41 countries covering most of the world’s populated land area.8 This is the amount that the EIA believes is ‘technically recoverable’ and represents 11 years of current global oil use and 62 years of current global gas use.9
However, 99 per cent of this shale gas and all of the shale oil is classified as ‘unproven’ – in other words, these are purely estimates based on the size and location of shale formations and the current industry assessment of how much oil and gas can be recovered over the lifetime of a fracking operation. The EIA admits that these numbers will remain ‘highly uncertain’ unless proven with test wells.
The experience of the US doesn’t lend much confidence to these industry estimates. Leaked
Assessed basins with resource estimate Assessed basins without resource estimate internal EIA documents admit that fracking companies tend to overstate the size of their reserves by basing their estimates on the gas extracted from the best locations (or ‘sweet spots’) in shale formations.10 They also note that fracking produces an initial rush of fuel which then drops off sharply, meaning that it may not be economic to extract all the gas or oil from each well – companies choose to take the first, most profitable burst and then move on.
The independent Energy Watch Group recently concluded that when these factors were properly accounted for, shale gas production in the US was likely to peak in 2015, and that shale gas outside the US was unlikely to reach full development ‘since geological, geographical and industrial conditions are much less favourable’.11
A report by the Energy Policy Forum is even more scathing about the EIA’s estimates, concluding that US shale oil and gas reserves have been ‘over-estimated by a minimum of 100 per cent and by as much as 400-500 per cent’.12 The report’s author, financial analyst Deborah Rogers, told the US Senate that the EIA’s track record in forecasting was ‘dismal’, and that by its own admission the EIA had over-estimated natural gas production 66 per cent of the time and oil 60 per cent of the time in 2012.13
Far from being an energy boom, shale gas could turn out to be no more than a bubble. As economics professor Robert Ayres recently wrote for Forbes magazine: ‘My opinion... is that the fracking boom is i s t r a t i o n i n
A d m f o r m a t i o n
:E n e r g y
S o u r c e
Impure as the driven snow: a fracking site for extracting oil outside Williston, North Dakota, in March this year.
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