Shale Gas Reserves are Finite, if Uncertain!

by S. Tom Bond on February 2, 2015

Whither Shale Gas? Certainty and Uncertainty Abound!

Commentary by S. Tom Bond, Retired Chemistry Professor & Resident Farmer, Lewis County, WV

What can be said about projections for natural gas from shale? Other than generally over-estimated, a more accurate statement cannot be made – yet. The first item to consider is the reserve. Perhaps the most accurate figures are available from research done for the Post-Carbon Institute by David Hughes. His article in Nature, one of the two top scientific journals of the world, titled Natural Gas: The Fracking Fallacy, published December 3, 2014, is a further development of the theme and is a classic. It compares estimates by the U. S. Energy Information Agency and smaller, more limited but more detailed estimates. The EIA was found wanting, which was verified by their own publication, cited in the Nature article, published the 14th of October in 2014.

The article by Hughes referred to above is titled “Drilling Deeper“, subtitled “A Reality Check on U. S. Government Forecasts for a Lasting Tight Oil and Shale Gas Boom,” is a further development of the theme. It lists EIA reductions in reserve estimates and gives reasons to doubt they have it correct yet. Page 5 shows graphics of reductions of estimates of one of the Marcellus which estimate has been reduced from 410 Trillion cubic feet to 84 tcf, a factor of 80% by 2011. The same graphic shows reduction of Poland’s shale gas by 99%. The estimate of oil availabe from the Monterey Tight Oil was reduced by 96%.

Hughes survey involves seven tight oil plays and seven shale gas plays, involving 89% of current oil production and 88% current gas production from shale. The primary source of data for this analysis is Drillinginfo, a commercial database of well production data widely used by industry and government, including the EIA. Hughes concludes ” Tight oil production from major plays will peak before 2020. (That’s 5 years.) Also “Shale gas production from the top seven plays will likely peak before 2020.

He makes estimates of production for 2040, based on present drilling methods and without regard for price – essentially what can be, rather than what will be (see more below). His average first year field decline rate for Marcellus is 32% and average 3-year well decline rate is given as 74-82%. See page 11, where all seven fields are listed.

Hughes’ implications for the future of gas are hugely important, i.e. the EIA’s rosy forecasts have led policymakers and the American public to believe a number of false promises:

  • · That cheap and abundant natural gas supplies can create a domestic manufacturing resurgence and millions of new jobs over the long term.
  • · That abundant domestic oil and natural gas resources justify lifting the oil export ban (imposed 40 years ago after the Arab oil embargo)and fast- tracking approval of liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals.
  • · That the U.S. can use its newfound energy strength to shift geopolitical trends in our long-term favor.
  • · That we can easily limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants as a result of natural gas replacing coal as the primary source of electricity production.

David Hughes report is chosen here because of that author’s expertise and because the analysis is more “fine grained,” it uses data from individual wells.

Hughes deals with the characteristics of individual wells and fields based on them. There are other influences he cannot deal with, however. I shall address some of them here. One is the decline of production as the drilling is forced out of “sweet spots.” These are areas of relatively high production. They were actively sought out at the beginning of production, because they bring the highest return on money and effort invested. That is the way all mineral development is done. It is sometimes expressed as “the easy stuff is taken out first.”

Because of rapid decline of shale wells, new wells must be drilled constantly. How available will the necessary capital be? That depends on the availability and the attitude of potential investors. Availability depends on the general economy. A crash would tighten up investment money. It also depends on the perception of reward (magnitude of profit), which will certainly be declining due to the fact these wells do not last; to increased public opposition and active campaigns of disinvestment from fossil fuels; to the continuing increase in efficiency of solar and wind; and to the inevitability of failures of companies due to low oil prices.

I think fracking will become less popular with the public as time passes by and the devastation it causes becomes better known – that is certainly the trend now, witness the extensive advertising the industry must put out to influence public opinion.

The biggie is how will the price of oil affect the demand for fracked gas. There is a world-wide slowdown in the economy, while the over-production of oil and gas in the U. S. is a factor, but decline in demand, is often forgotten.  Lower growth than expected has occurred in Europe and Asia.

More about this here and here. To paraphrase some college textbooks, “The Author leaves as an exercise for the reader,” the resolution of this video which shows both Senator Shelly Moore Caputo (R – WV) and Martin J. Durban, President of America’s Natural Gas Alliance, saying or implying the reserve estimates are increasing.


Professor Terry Englender of Penn State University is scheduled to speak in Potter County on Utica Shale on February 17th at 7 pm in the Gunzburger Building on Main Street in Coudersport, PA.  The talk is entitled: “Utica Shale: Digging Deeper.” His work at Penn State University is sponsored by six international energy companies.

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