Kurt Cobb has a great article at Resource Insights about why I think the best case against fraccing in my area isn’t the water, it is the boom and bust cycle – with a predominance of bust. The last thing rural PA or upstate NY need is another short term boom and bust cycle that leaves them with a lot of played out gas heads and environmental consequences. Or worse, just a plain old bust.
But, in its early release of the Annual Energy Outlook for 2012, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) cut its estimate of technically recoverable resources of U.S. shale gas from 827 tcf to 482 tcf. (That says little about whether all those resources will be economically recoverable.) Much of the decline in the EIA estimate comes from a downgrading of the Marcellus Shale, by far the largest of the U.S. shale gas deposits spanning vast areas of New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia as well as sections of Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. The downgrade resulted from extensive drilling results now available as the rush to extract gas from the Marcellus Shale accelerates. The EIA cut its estimated technically recoverable resources from 410 tcf to 141 tcf. This estimate remains well in excess of last year’s estimate from the U.S. Geological Survey which put those resources at 84 tcf.
Despite the revisions, the American Petroleum Institute (API), the oil and gas industry’s trade lobby, finds the 100-year figure so irresistibly round that API resists reducing it to match the official estimates in its recent ad campaign (see “One Million Jobs”). Why let the facts get in the way of good ad copy?
What ought to be acutely troubling is that the history of revisions to oil and gas resources has heretofore been one of increases. For the first time, we are now seeing not just downward revisions in estimated natural gas resources, but drastic downward revisions. That should tell us that the era of unlimited horizons for fossil fuels has come to a close. All the advanced technology that was supposed to bring unending plenty in the form of fossil fuels is now giving us better estimates of what will be available, namely, not nearly so much as we thought.
Cobb goes on to mention the recent failed attempts at finding profitable shale gas in Poland and Hungary. Just as we wildly overstate the potential of most oil fields at discovery, we do the same with natural gas, and that leaves us in a precarious place. As we’ve seen recently our public officials read the same news stories the rest of us do – and no one ever publishes the headline – “Radical downgrade in extractable resources anticipated” – even when it is entirely true.
We have systematically misled just about everyone who doesn’t read the raw data carefully to expect a future of abundant fossil fuels. The mismatch of expectation and reality, however, is likely to be enormously painful.