Revolution: un documental sobre el cambio necesario

He tenido la oportunidad de ver en primicia el documental de Rob Stewart, Revolution. Rob es un ambientalista canadiense, amante de los océanos y conocido por su trabajo en defensa de los tiburones con su documental Sharkwaters.
En Revolution quiere ampliar su investigación, ya que se ha dado cuenta de que la defensa de los tiburones es solo una pieza de un rompecabezas mayor: la acidificación de los océanos, causa en parte por el exceso de CO2 en la atmósfera, causado a su vez por el estilo de vida occidental e insostenible. La población siente que ha perdido el control de su destino, en manos de unos políticos que no toman las acciones que les demandan, embarrados en un capitalismo clientelista y voraz.Rob Stewart Revolution
A lo largo de más de hora y media, Rob va combinando bellas imágenes del océano, al nivel de National Geographic, junto con entrevistas a expertos, científicos y políticos preocupados por la conservación del medio ambiente.
La cadena de causas es clara, y con dramáticas consecuencias. Se ha demostrado que todas las extinciones masivas en la historia geológica se han visto precedidas de cambios importantes en el océano como su acificación, proceso que está ocurriendo actualmente.
Una prueba de ello es la lenta pero constante desaparición de los corales a nivel mundial, y se estima que, a este ritmo, su destrucción total ocurrirá en menos de 30 años. La acidificación de los océanos, provocada por la mayor absorción del CO2, es al final, un primer síntoma de la en enfermedad que sufre nuestro planeta: infección por humanos con estilo de vida occidental.
El cambio climático, el gran elefante blanco en la sala de todas las conferencias internacionales, es ya una evidencia, que lejos de arreglarse, está empeorando según los países en desarrollo copian nuestro estilo de vida.
El auge de los hidrocarburos no convencionales, maravillosamente mostrado en la película con las fantasmagóricas imágenes de los Tar Sands en Alberta, ha vuelto a devolver al mundo la tentación de los hidrocarburos baratos.
Ello, que sin duda está retrasando el cambio a las energías renovables, está empujando, como efecto positivo, la reducción del uso de carbón. La importante campaña actual contra el carbón en uso eléctrico está empezando a dar sus frutos, como se puede ver en este artículo.
Cada año se genera en EEUU menos electricidad con carbón, y el efecto global es la reducción de las emisiones (aunque se esté sustituyendo por gas natural barato, que emite menos).
Es interesante como Rob presenta a la gente joven en la película. Los herederos del mundo futuro tienen mucho que decir en las externalidades generacionales, y poco se les escucha.
La pérdida de poder de los ciudadanos en la democracia capitalista y la lucha de las generaciones, entre la vieja escuela (mayores de 50 años) que controla el mundo y las nuevas generaciones (menores de 40) es evidente. Los Millenians, Generación X, etc van poco a poco desplazando a los Baby-boomers, y tienen una escala de valores totalmente distinta. La conservación del medio ambiente, la sostenibilidad, la justicia y honradez, así como una visión distinta del éxito personal, basada en objetivos más sociales, sin duda va a cambiar el mundo. Esperemos que para entonces, la enfermedad humana de la tierra sea curable.

I will buy your gas tomorrow

Introduction

Our world and society have changed in the two last centuries more than in the two last millennia. The innovations born at the Industrial Revolution have modified our way of living probably only comparable to the Neolithic Revolution, when humans leaved their nomads lives to settle in cozier places thanks to agriculture.

The turning point that motivated Industrial Revolution was to learn how to dominate heat for generating power and how to use this power. Moreover, the prior changes on the structure of the civil society allowed the raise of innovation and scientific research. The last four or five generations of humans have understood and modified the world more than the hundred generations before. The changes have been so profuse and fast that today we are still catching up.

Nevertheless, probably these changes would not have taken place so quickly without the tremendous energy provided by fossil fuels. As it is known, fossil fuels were formed by natural processes such as anaerobic decomposition of buried dead organisms. Millions of years ago, those organisms processed CO2 and water to create high-energy chemical compounds, through the mechanism of photosynthesis. Those compounds evolved over geological time till what they are today, sometimes exceeding 650 million years. In other words, they are sun energy stored and chemically processed long time ago.

Unfortunately, burning fossil fuels is not free. They have condemned our society to two big issues which are getting worse every day, little by little, and that will probably drive to catastrophic consequences. The first problem is that fossil fuels are not infinite. Despite reserves of fossil fuels are expanding along with new exploration and techniques, some day they will end. Forecasts say that we will have oil for one or two centuries but coal will last three or four centuries more, under current consumption. The second big problem is related to a combustion product, the CO2 (burning is actually reversing the formula that created fuels). That gas is probed to be responsible for the global warming effect. The consequences of the generalized increase of earth temperature are unknown and under discussion, but there is consensus in that it is not prudent to modify a complex system as a planet ecology. This problem is closer in time and there is great literature and possible solutions (sequestration, cap-and-trade, quotas, CDMs…) to avoid or mitigate it, despite no one of the solutions have achieved to be effective enough to solve the problem.

This paper is focused on the first problem, especially oil which is used mainly for transportation. The common response to the issue is related to fuels substitutes. As oil becomes scarce, its price will rise, and today expensive substitutes will be profitable then, addressing to a smooth transition (Simon, 1996). Despite that could be probably true, there are some authors (Meadows, 1972; Barbier, 2005) who warn that this transition can slow down economic growth and cause a miserable crisis for a long time. Nevertheless, our bad decisions today are definitely creating challenging issues for future generations. There is an important intergenerational externality here, which is causing sub-optimal economic decisions from a broad time point of view. There is not only a moral o ethic problem here; I believe that this is an economic problem that should be faced by any responsible social planner.

Our current human generation should not be the only owner of the earth gratitude in terms of resource availability. Similar to a free rider in a public bus, we are taking advantage of the world endowment of energy. In thermodynamic terms, out rate of entropy generation (that is order or energy degradation) is greater than the system order creation (mainly by the sun supply), addressing to a non-sustainable equilibrium.

In this paper, I will try to address this economic problem and pose solutions or elements to take into account to solve it. The ideal conclusion would be to answer the question How much I owe you for using oil today, so avoiding you from using tomorrow?

Intergenerational externalities as a particular case of the Tragedy of the Commons

From my point of view, the biggest problem of capitalism is that the system confuses value with price. The dogma is that the value of the goods is the price that any consumer is willing to pay for it. In other words, for things that does not have price or its price is zero, they have no value or they are useless. For instance, nobody would pay a penny for a can of pure air or for knowing that there is an animal similar to the elephant with a horn in the face. However, nobody would say that clean air or black rhinoceros (an animal about to extinct) are worthless. Worthless means that your utility (or satisfaction) is the same having or not the good. Obviously nobody can be equally happy with clean air than with contaminated, as well as, nobody could say that watching a rhinoceros in a zoo or TV cannot cause someone else´s satisfaction.

Nevertheless, under our current economic and social scheme, these things have not price, or it is very difficult to determine, because, actually, there is not a market for them. That end in economic problems, like depletion, abusing, scarcity or injustice. That is what is known in economics as externalities. The common definition for externalities is a cost or benefit that is not transmitted through prices in that it is incurred by a party who was not involved as either a buyer or seller of the goods or services causing the cost or benefit. Quantify externalities is the hard part and the challenge for our current economic model.

As it has been said, the root of the problem is to set the price for those goods that are not traded in a market. One common resulting issue is what is known as the Tragedy of the Commons, that can be summarized in the depletion of a shared resource by individuals, acting independently and rationally according to each one’s self-interest, despite their understanding that depleting the common resource is contrary to the group’s long-term best interests.

There are many examples of this problem. In the figure below, some examples have been plotted considering the time to suffer the issue and the time required to solve the issue, with the current technology and knowledge, approximately. Note that the scale is logarithmic and that some issues do not have possible solution (or the time to solve them is infinite).

Sustainability issues, time to solve vs time to occur

Moreover, two lines have been projected, marking the area of influence of each human generation, which, for developed countries, could be considered for simplicity around a century. The area between axis and dotted lines (<100 years) is the temporal limit when the acts of a generation can be seen and can be solved within itself. That is to say, issues in that area could be, in theory, easy to solve or avoid for rational consumers, since they personally can see the results of their actions.

That happens in real world. There are successful mechanisms and examples that have solved these issues. For instance, the Montreal Protocol for protect the ozone layer, the cap-and-trade program of EPA for SO2 emissions that provoke acid rain, or toll highways for reduce traffic. In general, problems that can be solved (or regenerated) in less than a century (under horizontal dotted line), can be solved setting up a quota. However, a quota is almost useless for nuclear waste or oil consumption, since the problem will occur sooner or later.

Another important factor is that the time to problem was under the limit when the current generation can suffer the issue or think that they are in charge to solve it (on the left of the vertical dotted line). In this case, it is feasible that different governments achieve an agreement to put a limit in the shared good or, at least, everyone agrees in that the problem does exist. There are still many advocates that doubt about the climate change or even the depletion of fossil fuels (for instance, John Skvarla, secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in North Carolina), as new reserves or methods (as fracking) are emerging. The common response is to rely on future innovation to get rid of the issue. It seems risky to trust in scientists that are not born yet, for clearing up problems that we have not been able to solve.

There is an ancient implicit psychological factor in all of this. Despite we usually take care of our children, it is very difficult to make decisions thinking in more than two or three generations. The uncertainty of our lives, tend to overvalue the present to the future, and that can represent a failure from the complete timeline view. Our capitalist economy follows this principle, and the rate is the inflation. Money today values more than tomorrow, or translating in goods, a gallon of gas today values more than tomorrow, so, for us, it is worthier to burn it today. But maybe, the demand and human needs of tomorrow are greater than today, so, actually, a gallon of gas could value much more in future than today. This is what happens with exhaustible resources. However, it can be difficult to ask an oil producer to not sell oil today and leave it to his great grandchildren to use it for making more profit.

This type of issues are called intergenerational externalities, that is, cost or benefits that are not transmitted through current prices and are assumed by future consumers. They are, in fact, a Tragedy of the Commons case when more than one human generation is involved.

Current and future generations have limited opportunities for trade or coordinate polices, and, moreover, it would be an asymmetrical negotiation, when the current generation has an advantageous position over the future ones. So, traditional solutions as Coase’s theorem, quotas or prohibitions are ineffective methods, as it can be seen in real world, where the problems on the upper-right corner remain unresolved.

The economics of exhaustible resources

The first economist who studied these issues in depth was Hotelling in 1931. As he stated in the first lines of his article, contemplation of the world’s disappearing supplies of minerals, forest and other exhaustible assets has led to demands for regulation of their exploitation. The feeling that these products are now too cheap for the good of future generations, that they are being selfishly exploited at too rapid rate, and that in consequence of their excessive cheapness they are being produced and consumed wastefully has given rise to the conservation movement. He studied the case from the producer point of view in different market cases as competition, monopoly or oligopoly. The concern, at that time, was to find the appropriate rate of extraction that maximize the ‘total utility’, since restricted exploitation could raise prices over benefiting producers, but excessive production could sink the prices and bankrupt producers. His conclusion is called the Hotelling’ rule: the most socially and economically profitable extraction path of a non-renewable resource is one along which the price of the resource, determined by the marginal net revenue from the sale of the resource, increases at the rate of interest. His work laid the foundation for further research in the field of non-renewable resource economics, and derived from the classic model called cake-eating economy.

Before the 1970s, serious attention was not given to Hotelling’s views regarding economics of exhaustible resources. Great Depression and World Wars recoveries were more impending issues. However, the oil crisis on 70s, and the work of Meadows and the Club of Rome, set off another period of intense public concern for natural resources.

The reality is not so simple as the Hotelling model, since, there are capital and/or technical change that can compensate for the decrease of the resource. That has been deeply studied by economist as Solow (1974), Stiglitz (1974) or Dasgupta and Heal (1974, 1979), who have cared about how to maintain growth in an economy based on exhaustible resources. Under different hypothesis, they conclude that an optimal path of extraction with a positive consumption exists if the discount rate is high enough. Then, the declining use of the resource is compensated for by capital accumulations. In simple words, if the yields of the capital investment (and technology development) are high enough to compensate the lost of the resource, then exhaust the resource would not badly affect the economy. Similar conclusions are posed using the maximum criterion or Rawls’s criterion: if the elasticity of output with respect to capital is greater than that of the resource used, then a sustainable positive level of consumption exists. That introduces the concept of efficiency, meaning that it could be sustainable if what you obtain by using a resource (for instance, a car moving) is greater than the value of that resource (oil) used.

Nevertheless, it is not clear what should be the sustainable discount rate in the case of oil, or what is the actual value obtained for using oil. So the solutions go from not using the resource at all (total conservationism or ‘dictatorship of the future’) to using it at a certain rate (‘dictatorship of the present’).

Moreover, these economic models do not cope with intergenerational equity or altruism questions; and they do not take into account the fact described in previous paragraphs, about the discrepancies between the today decision maker and the future affected. For that reason, the overlapping generations (OLG) framework have been used recently to address the problem. Different models and assumptions have been studied by Howarth (1991) o Gutierrez et al. (2003).

Another interesting example of sub-optimal economic allocation due to intergenerational externalities has been recently studied by Lazkano (2012), using the OLG model and regarding the positive externality of research and development in clean energies. In her work, it is demonstrated that as consumers do not care about the effect of capital accumulation on future pollution, their demand for clean technologies is not sufficiently high to offset the negative effect on the environment. Moreover, the economy’s transition from dirty to clean technologies, […], might not occur because of the insufficient demand for clean technologies. And as a result, when agents care little about the environment, environmental quality not only deteriorates but economic growth can be negative.

That represents a market failure. In the same way, not compensate future generations for consuming an exhaustible resource implies that the current demand of oil can be greater than the optimal and the oil price lower than the optimal. That price probably is not high enough to encourage investigation and investment in substitutes as renewable sources. That results in an inferior rate of substitution and a delay in the transition, letting some future generation to assume these costs and facing lower economic growth.

All of the previously commented models try to find the optimal solution or the best extraction path. Another approach has been currently studied by other economists as Martinet et al. (2006), focusing on feasible solutions, that is, viable development paths that can be or not the optimal. With that, they lower the requisites for achieving a sustainable economy and find interesting conclusions.

Trying to calculate a figure to add to the current price of oil can be hard and it will need more time and effort than the scope of this paper, but, however, I will try to contribute with some ideas with a simple example, in the next section. That quantity should be a tax on the consumption of oil specifically designated to investigate in oil substitutes (increasing technology development) or a ‘green’ fund for future generations (increasing capital accumulation).

The cake of oil

Let’s imagine a simpler and graphical example of what we are discussing here. Imagine a cake that is sliced in 20 pieces. Imagine that there is a cue of 20 people waiting for eat one piece everyone. Each person can take as many as pieces he or she wants and are on the plate at that turn, and they cannot discuss between them, only with the next or two next persons on the cue. They would be happy just eating one piece (1/20), but if they take more, it is ok.

The first person in the line can perfectly take all of the cake, eat one piece and throw away the rest, but he does not so because the second person is watching out and he does not want to be a bully. However, he takes two pieces (2/20), one more just in case he gets hungry again. The second person does the same, and so the third and the rest ones (maybe the ninth and tenth would take only one regarding the almost empty plate, but it doesn’t matter). The problem arises with the eleventh and following, because there is not more cake on the plate. So ten people are more than happy but other ten are very disappointed because they eat nothing; and moreover, the first tenth have already left the fiesta¡

If you have gone to any party, you know that this is possible to happen. Now, just substitute the cake for an exhaustible resource as oil, and each person in the line for a complete generation, and you have our oil-based economy. It is obviously much more complicated in reality, because that cake can produce other outputs, there are substitutes for it, and the price fluctuates pushed by momentary offer and demand. All of these assumptions are considered and studied in the articles mentioned before.

Looking at the historical prices of oil, plot below (inflation adjusted, red line), it can be seen a great stability in prices until the oil crisis, that seems a steady and pace cake-eating model. It reminds me to the first lucky tenth. From the 70’s the prices started to fluctuate, due to the decisions of some of the people to keep some of the cake for rising prices (let’s call them party-poppers?) and the crazy new game called ‘trade the cake’ where the party animals play to exchange pieces of cake betting some money.

History of oil prices without inflation

Maybe, the simple cake example could be solved just by imposing a quota (a sign with ‘please one piece by person’), but imagine an infinite cue with people with bigger or lower necessities. That bring to us to what has been posed in previous paragraphs, how to define an extra price or define the externality for consuming today an exhaustible resource on future generations? How create a market where consumers do not exist yet? It would be difficult to get this number but one thing it is clear, it has to be something.

This type of economic and social justice problems considering generation’s distribution have been addressed by some oil-producers countries and regions. Some countries and regions have established the so-called permanent funds, which are sovereign investment funds where the royalties for resource exploitation are saved and re-invested, letting future generations to enjoy the benefits of the resource endowment. Some examples are the Alaska Permanent Fund, the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund, the State Oil Fund of Azerbaijan, the Future Generations Fund of the State of Kuwait or probably the largest one, the Government Pension Fund of Norway, previously known as The Petroleum Fund of Norway. These funds were not actually created with the objective to allocate benefits among generations; despite it is a consequent benefit. They were created to avoid the problems known as the Resource Curse, Paradox of plenty or Dutch Disease, which refer to the paradox that countries and regions with an abundance of natural resources, tend to have less economic growth and worse development outcomes than countries with fewer natural resources. This is hypothesized to happen for many different reasons, including a decline in the competitiveness of other economic sectors (caused by appreciation of the real exchange rate as resource revenues enter an economy), volatility of revenues from the natural resource sector due to exposure to global commodity market swings, government mismanagement of resources, or weak, ineffectual, unstable or corrupt institutions. That is probably happening nowadays in North Dakota, where the boom of the exploitation of shale oil is creating a great inflation in costs (outsize prices in rents, salaries, etc) that are drowning other non-oil related business. (Dobb, 2013).

The royalties are dedicated to the fund, which give it back to citizens as a yearly dividend (in some cases like Norway, that amount is determined by the Constitution). That resolves partially the inflation effect through sterilization and providing a stable revenue stream. As a consequence, allocate the benefits of exploitation among time, compensating future generations of the country for emptying the resource endowment. Nevertheless, that is not being done in a worldwide basis, creating a future problem of injustice.

Conclusions

In this paper, some relevant problems and ideas related with exhaustible resource exploitation have been posed. It is clear that allocating benefits and cost between different generations drives to economic issues than are not totally resolved. As many other current problems of our society, solutions and decisions should be taken considering the whole world and next generations.

Probably the existing system of resource extraction and consumption is not the best solution and is creating a problem that must be dealt by future generations. How to find the best answers is now under debate by economists. Nevertheless, there are some solutions running as the permanent funds, which should be adopted and considered as a regular basis. Moreover, I think that the investment policy of these funds should be oriented to projects that achieve reduce or eliminate the dependency on the resources that feed them. Otherwise, the future is probably compromised.

So, if we would want to buy the gas of our great grandchildren, we should start to save money now, since, they are actually paying part of our gas today.

References

  • Barbier Edward B., Natural resources and economic development, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005
  • Dasgupta, P., Heal, G., The optimal depletion of exhaustible resources, Poceedings of the Symposium on the Economics of Exhaustible Resources, 1974
  • Dasgupta, P., Heal, G., Economic Theory and Exhaustible Resources. Cambridge University Press, 1979
  • Dobb, E., The New Oil Landscape. National Geographic, 2013
  • Gutierrez, M.J., Agnani, B., Iza, A., Growth in overlapping generation economies with non-renewable resources, Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 2003
  • Hotelling H., The Economics of Exhaustible Resources, The Journal of Political Economy, 1931
  • Howarth, R.B., Intertemporal equilibria and exhaustible resources: an overlapping generations approach, Ecological Economics 4, 1991
  • Meadows Dennis L., The limits to Growth, Pan Books Ltd, 1972
  • Lazkano I., Intergenerational Externalities and Sustainable Growth, 2012
  • Schilling M., Chiang L., The Depletion of Non-renewable Resources for Non-sustainable Externalities as an Economic Development Policy, CPSA Annual Conference, 2009
  • Simon Julian L., The Ultimate Resource, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1996
  • Solow, R.M., Intergenerational equity and exhaustible resources, review of economic studies, Proceedings of the Symposium on the Economics of Exhaustible Resources, 1974
  • Stiglitz, J., Growth with exhaustible natural resources: efficient and optimal growth paths, Proceedings of the Symposium on the Economics of Exhaustible Resources, 1974

Shale Gas: The Black Revolution

Introduction

In the last 40 years, important changes were occurred in the traditional scenario of the energy sources. First, the crisis of petroleum in 1973 was the first warning about the problems of fossil fuels. More closely, the important economic development prior to 2008 pushed the markets of energy resources due to the growing demand. With traditional sources of energy as oil, gas and coal raising prices, alternatives sources which were unprofitable before, started to seem more attractive. Also, the dependency of the developed countries on the resources of foreign countries, many of them not very trustable, converted the issue in terms of national security.

Among these alternative sources, renewables, especially wind and solar, have been the main character of the play. Not absolutely new, since they had a little bright in the 80’s, now they have experienced a very strong development worldwide. A new industry has been created only five years ago. The benefits of the renewables are tremendously obvious. They do not consume fuels susceptible to expire to get energy from nature, and they almost do not affect the environment, do not pumping CO2 or other gases into the atmosphere or compromise any region with nuclear risks. On the other hand, these technologies are still not cheap enough to compete with the conventional sources. The price of energy is a key variable in the economic growth and any country try to keep it low for achieving more competitiveness and more economic expansion.

But these efforts in finding alternatives to traditional sources, also has applied to investigation in fossil fuels. Since the end of the 19th century, it is known that there are fuels buried into the ground which are not in the conventional geologic formations. These fuels are in structures which permeability is very poor to make the normal drilling process profitable. They are called non-conventional fossil fuels. Many research resources have been expended in investigating new techniques or technologies to get these fuels from earth in a profitable way. Now, it seems that it has been achieved.

These difficult geologic formations, which until very recent years were unprofitable, have different names as shales, tights or sands. From them, currently gas natural and oil are being obtained, and because of its origin, they receive the nickname of shale gas, tight gas or shale oil. At present, the most important one is the Shale Gas, because there are huge reserves of natural gas in shales and because this last 5 years the production of Shale Gas has shooted up. The raise of these new sources of fossil fuels is being named for some people as, ‘The Black Revolution’.

In this paper, it is going to analyze why the Shale Gas is so important in the new era of energy, what are the important environmental and social issues of its production and what can we expect in the evolution of the energy mix in the US and worldwide.

What is the Shale Gas?

As it has been introduced, Shale Gas refers to natural gas that is trapped within shale formations. Shales are fine-grained sedimentary rocks that can be rich sources of petroleum and natural gas and whose porosity and structure does not permit to get the fuels with the traditional ways.

The advent of large-scale Shale Gas production did not occur until Mitchell Energy and Development Corporation experimented during the 1980s and 1990s to make deep Shale Gas production a commercial reality in the Barnett Shale in North-Central Texas. They used a combination of techniques invented for other purposes, the horizontal drilling in conjunction with hydraulic fracturing.

 Extraccion del Shale Gas

As it can be viewed in the figure, natural gas is incorporated into the Shale Gas formation, not is in a bag as conventional gas. Moreover, shales are ordered in horizontal layers. Conventional drilling is totally useless in these formations. The new drilling technique consists of:

  1. A vertical well is drilled
  2. The drill turns to continue horizontally. In this manner, the horizontal drilling permits to make a hole along the shale
  3. Water, lots of chemicals and sand are pumped into the well to unlock the hydrocarbons trapped in shale formations by opening cracks (fractures) in the rock and allowing natural gas to flow from the shale into the well.

As the success of Mitchell Energy and Development became apparent, other companies aggressively entered the play, so that by 2005, the Barnett Shale alone was producing nearly 0.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas per year. As producers gained confidence in the ability to produce natural gas profitably in the Barnett Shale, with confirmation provided by results from the Fayetteville Shale in Arkansas, they began pursuing other shale plays, including Haynesville, Marcellus, Woodford, Eagle Ford, and others.

Economic vitality

Although Shale Gas production started ten years ago, only in the past 5 years has been recognized as a “game changer” for the U.S. natural gas market. The proliferation of activity into new shale plays has increased dry shale gas production in the United States from 1.0 trillion cubic feet in 2006 to 4.8 trillion cubic feet, or 23 percent of total U.S. dry natural gas production, in 2010. Wet shale gas reserves increased to about 60.64 trillion cubic feet by year-end 2009, when they comprised about 21 percent of overall U.S. natural gas reserves, now at the highest level since 1971. Oil production from shale plays, notably the Bakken Shale in North Dakota and Montana, has also grown rapidly in recent years.

Something is considered as a ‘game changer’ if it has the ability to change the price of good. That has happened in the case of the Shale Gas.

As you can see in the figure on the left, due to the more offer of gas natural in the market, and also the contraction of the demand, the price of natural gas has dramatically fallen down between 2005 and 2010. Moreover, the projection shows that thanks to the influence of the Shale Gas, the evolution of the prices (blue line) will be below the prior projections which did not considered the new gas. That has huge implications in energy markets. For example, less natural gas prices imply less electricity prices and more difficulties to renewables to achieve grid parity.

To better understand the importance of this new source of gas, let compare it with the actual figures of the natural gas market in the US. Of the total natural gas consumed in the United States in 2009, 87% was produced domestically; thus, the supply of natural gas is not as dependent on foreign producers as is the supply of crude oil (only 51% domestic), and the delivery system is less subject to interruption. The availability of large quantities of Shale Gas will further allow the United States to consume a predominantly domestic supply of gas.

According to the EIA Annual Energy Outlook 2011, the United States possesses 2,543 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of potential natural gas resources. Natural gas from shale resources, considered uneconomical just a few years ago, accounts for 862 Tcf of this resource estimate, more than double the estimate published last year. At the 2010 rate of U.S. consumption (about 24.1 Tcf per year), 2,543 Tcf of natural gas is enough to supply over 100 years of use. Shale Gas resource and production estimates increased significantly between the 2010 and 2011 Outlook reports and are likely to increase further in the future. The Shale Gas represents about 37 years of supply considering the US consumption of 2009.

Reservas de Shale Gas de EEUU

The US plays of Shale Gas are spread around the country but there are some formation especially important located in Barnett shale (Texas), Bakken Shale (North Dakota and Montana), and the most important is Marcellus Shale (Pensilvania, New York and others).

The Shale Gas is being extracted in rural zones, and that is causing important changes in these villages. There are some important environmental implications, due to the extraction of Shale Gas is not perfect and can affect aquifers. Moreover, the social equity in the villages is changing since the owners of the lands where the gas is extracted are earning much money for royalties they had imagined feeding cows and growing plants.

Ecological Health

Local effects

The extraction of Shale Gas is not as simple as it was presented above. As many industrial activities, important bad externalities are generated. The amounts of water and chemicals pumped for the hydraulic fracturing are huge. Drilling a typical deep shale natural gas and oil well requires between 65,000 and 600,000 gallons of water. Not only the consumption of tons of water is something to be considered from an environmental position, also the composition of the chemicals is important. The problem is that the actual composition has not been revealed because is considered an industrial secret. About a 2% of the mixture is chemicals. They are crucial for the Shale Gas extraction and include acids, anti-bacterial agents, breakers, clay stabilizers, corrosion inhibitor, crosslinker, friction reducers, gelling agents, iron controls, pH adjusting agents, and scale inhibitors, between others.

The huge amount waste water of the process, full of chemicals, sand and muddy has to be treated. Analysis performed to this waste water shows that it contains some components that are carcinogenic and even nuclear radioactive. The treatment of this water is done in the States with the more lax regulation. Many of them do not have equipment to remove these chemicals out of the water, which is pumped in rivers. Nobody knows what will be the effects of these chemicals in the environment in a long term, because this new type of extraction is almost new.

But maybe, this is not the worst problem. When the drill punches the land, in many cases, some of the layers crossed are aquifers. In some places of Pennsylvania and other States, the tap water has been contaminated by the waste water and even by the gas. The problem was shown in the documentary ‘Gasland’ by Josh Fox, where it is possible to see incredible images of taps running with flammable water. Also, it presents some cases of people living near the drills with terrible and strange diseases, animals dead, bad water contamination and other health issues. A ‘silent law’ seems to be happening because many people of these farms are earning lots of money with the royalties of the gas and also they have disclosure contracts with the drilling companies.

As named above, the Shale Gas production started in Texas ten years ago. I had the opportunity to speak in October 2010 with Keith Sheedy, Chief Engineer’s Office from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. He basically explained that in Texas, no water contamination have occurred in this ten years of commercial exploitation. The cases of Pennsylvania are due to bad practises in the drilling process. When the hole is not properly cemented, then some of the gas running through the hole can pass to aquifers and contaminate the tap water.

Anyway, drilling has been doing for decades in similar industries, so regulations should have existed about water uses and disposal, but why is not the Shale Gas drilling regulated by environmental rules as the rest of industrial activity? Because, The Congress, pushed by Vice President Dick Cheney, exempted gas drilling from EPA Clean Water Act regulations in 2005. It is something curious that Cheney was former CEO of the Halliburton Company, one of the biggest driller and Shale Gas extractor in the US. After 2005, Shale Gas drilling boomed.

There are other collateral effects in Shale Gas extraction. Fracturing is changing the structure of the geologic formations. In the drilling zones some earthquakes has been occurred in recent years, and the seismic activity is above the average. In addition, the great amount of water used, generates large truck traffic to this normally quiet populations.

Global effects

The global effects of the boom of Shale Gas are similar to the rest of fossil fuels usage. As fossil fuel, CO2 are generated in its combustion. The CO2 is a greenhouse gas that contributes to the global warming, which diverse effects in the environment. Even, during the Shale Gas extraction, many other greenhouse gases, more powerful, as CH4, are liberated due to bad practises in the drills and the lack of regulation.

Moreover, it is an exhaustible fuel. That means that there will be a day when there will not be more.

The usage of fossil fuels generates strong externalities for the rest of the world, and they are not incorporated in the cost of its use. As indirect effect, the boom of the natural gas or the reduction of its price is bad for renewable energy because is a substitutive product. As lower is the price of fossil fuel generation, more difficult is for renewables to achieve grid parity and be competitive by their own.

At the end, the more usage of natural gas, despite is greener as other fossil fuels as coal or oil, address our world to a very tough scenario, with a society dependant of scarce fuels and an earth that had suffered non-return changes in its ecosystem.

Social Equity

In the past five years, many drills have been done. In the next figure it is possible to see the evolution of the Shale Gas drills (red spots) in the Barnett shale during the last decade.

 

The economic benefits for the owners of the land have been important. Signing its gas lease about $1,000 per acre and a royalties of 12.5% for the gas produced, can make them to earn between $1,500 and more than $500,000 per year during the term of the extraction, which can last some years. This is much money for people used to feeding cows and growing plants for fringe benefits.

This disparity of earnings is generating some social equity problems within farmers but more between ‘county folk and city people’. The city people are not earning anything with the drilling but they suffer the problems of water contamination, truck traffic and risks from the unknown effects of the activity. They are against drilling but farmers, in general, are in favor of it. Disputes are increasing in these, up to now, calm and little populations.

A good impact of the drilling activity is the job creation. According to a recent study by Pennsylvania State University, the industry has created 23,000 jobs, including employment for roustabouts, construction workers, helicopter pilots, sign makers, Laundromat workers, electricians, caterers, chambermaids, office workers, water haulers and land surveyors.

Another controversial topic is the unequal tax policies to the drilling activity. Currently, companies operating in Pennsylvania pay no tax to extract gas. (Governor Tom Corbett reportedly received at least $1 million in campaign donations from gas interests). Corbett recently introduced legislation that would levy fees that critics say would amount to a tax of 1% per well on gas extraction, significantly lower than Arkansas (3.45%) and Texas (5.4%). It is not very fair to tax differently the activity between States, since the basins extends along vast territories of different States and the problems of the activity are affecting people in the same way.

Conclusions: my personal vision

An important change in the energy world is happening. The important economic implications of the availability of domestic natural gas are something to be considered for any country. The US has been the first country to exploit the benefits of the Shale Gas, but it is expanding through the world. You can see in the next figure the worldwide reserves.

 

The new distribution of the sources of energy changes the game of power. No dependency from Middle East could be a fact that changes the course of international policy.

Apart of the good benefits from the economic point of view, there are other aspects in the sustainability analysis that have to be considered. The local effects on the environment are not trivial. Public health and environment ecosystem is endangered. Nobody knows what will be the effects of the chemicals used for extraction in the long term but, my impression is that many companies are working as fast as they can to get the maximum amount of gas before the effects will be public. Responsibility from the Government must be priority to avoid this, but as another market failure, the current democracy system permits the regulator be supported by the companies which he has to regulate.

At a local scale, the social problems of inequity will convert stronger in future years. Ronald Coase, a famous economist, states that if trade in an externality is possible and there are no transactions costs, bargaining will lead to an efficient outcome regardless of the initial allocation of property rights. In this case, this bargaining is not happening and that will push unfortunate people to fight for its rights.

From a global sustainability point of view, the raise of the fossil fuels has huge impact on the world. If the fossil fuels come to be cheap again, the efforts in renewables will stop and we will experience something similar to the 80’s, when the first renewable plants were built and no more were set up until 20 years later. At the end, it is to delay the inevitable, but in a worse scenario. We will have a warmer earth, more population and more bubble, because we have been growing with more energy than we can produce in our present time.

In a more practical way, the implications for the US energy mix or the electricity energy mix are obvious. The current 45% of coal will be substitute by gas, cleaner and not much more expensive now. If you see the predictions of new electrical capacity added from EIA, you can figure out:

 

 After knowing more about the Shale Gas, I understand better the words by President Obama during the State of the Union discuss in 2011, when he claims for a new goal for America’s energy future, saying 80 percent of electricity should come from clean energy sources by 2035. He considers clean, among others, wind, solar, nuclear and natural gas. 

References

 

Energy Information Administration (EIA): www.eia.gov

Josh Fox, Gasland, the movie: www.gaslandthemovie.com

The Economist, ‘We will frack you’ November 22, 2011: www.economist.com

Chesapeake, Hydraulic Fracturing Facts: www.hydraulicfracturing.com

New York Times, ‘The Fracturing of Pennsylvania’ November 17, 2011: www.nytimes.com

 

Shale Gas, vuelven los fantasmas

Otra de las conclusiones que saqué de Windpower es que el mercado eolico está algo parado. En el 2010 se instalaron la mitad de ‘megas’ que en el 2009, y las perspectivas para el 2010 no son muy alagüeñas. Para el 2012 y siguientes, dependerá bastante de si se mantienen las ayudas federales en exención de impuestos (PTC, ITC y Cash Grant).
Aunque si haces una visión más profunda, te das cuenta que el verdadero enemigo de la energía eólica es el Shale Gas, o gas de esquisto. La eólica empezaba a ser competitva con el gas, es decir que alcanzaba la grid parity, y eso es algo que aqui gusta, que sea rentable por si misma ( sin tener en cuenta las externalidades de la contaminación o de consumir un recurso escaso, que no es problema de los americanos, por supuesto) y por eso las utilities se animaban a apostar por los aeros. Además tenia la ventaja de tener un coste de generación estable y no dependiente del exterior.
Sin embargo, con el Shale gas, ambas cosas dejan de ser tan importantes. El Shale Gas es realmente una nueva forma de extracción. Se basa en la unión de dos técnicas, la perforación horizontal y la fractura hidráulica. La perforación horizontal permite llegar a estas capas, mientras que la fractura libera el gas que de otra forma estaría retenido en la estructura morfológica del esquisto. De esta forma se puede extraer de forma rentable el gas de las capas de este mineral, que hasta ahora eran descartadas. En el gráfico adjunto se entiende perfectamente:
Extraccion del Shale Gas
¿Y que implicaciones tiene esto para la energía eólica? Pues que según las estimaciones, los recursos autóctonos de gas de EEUU se van a duplicar de aquí al 2020, con lo que la dependencia energética es ahora relativa. También se estima que el precio del gas se ha reducido a un tercio gracias a este nuevo tesoro enterrado. Ver el mapa de los recursos norteamericanos asusta:
Reservas de Shale Gas de EEUU
Y también asustan las pruebas que los detractores de esta técnica de extracción mostraron en el documental ‘Gaslands’. La fractura hidráulica requiere grandes cantidades de agua y genera inmensas cantidades de agua contaminada con productos químicos que pueden llegar a los acuiferos. Además se liberan otros gases como el metano, que contaminan el agua corriente de las personas que habitan en las zonas de extracción (que son inmensas). El video de grifo que echa arder, es increible:

Como siempre, siempre hay quien dice que estas pruebas son un montaje, etc etc. Pero viendo la historia de este pais, y casi del resto de los paises, me parece muy dificil que en este caso predominen los criterios de sostenibilidad, energía limpia, etc frente al interés económico. Tanto los políticos (cortoplacistas por definición), como los CEOs de las utilities y los de las agencias de energía (PUCs, ISOs, FERC), deben de tener los ojos como platos con el Shale Gas: seguir manteniendo el inmenso consumo, sin subir precios, sin modernizar las redes, con ciclos combinados de regulación electrica sencilla, con contaminación perfectamente enterrable y con el orgullo de decir que es producción nacional, made in america y sin depender de los árabes. Y encima venden que el gas es ‘limpio’, como Mr. Obama cuando propone en 2035 el 80% ‘limpio’ incluyendo el gas. Señores, que nos van hacer la 1314¡. Y eso que solo el Shale gas aumenta las reservas 30 años más… dentro de 30 años le diré a mi hijo que estudie renovables, que entonces lo mismo si…