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.
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:
- A vertical well is drilled
- The drill turns to continue horizontally. In this manner, the horizontal drilling permits to make a hole along the shale
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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