America’s shale-gas bonanza (2)

Proven reserves -- and jobs -- are growing, but gas has its critics and prices are unpredictable. As other nations seek to explore their own potential, the future is uncertain, writes Sheila McNulty.

Hans-Martin Schulz, a German geologist, is co-founder of Gas Shales in Europe, a project funded by the oil and gas industry to explore the potential for development in Europe. “We are making the first steps in research,” he says. “It’s hard to estimate, at this point, what will happen.”

National and international energy policies will dictate how much gas is extracted, but there is no doubt that countries from Poland to China want to get in on the act. On November 17, 2009, US president Barack Obama and China’s president Hu Jintao launched the US-China Shale Gas Resource Initiative, which aims to use experience from the US to assess China’s shale gas potential.

But gas has its critics. It is about 30% less carbon intensive than oil and 50% less than coal, but it still emits carbon, which makes it less desirable than renewable energy resources. Fracturing the rock requires large quantities of water laced with chemicals, which critics fear could leak into groundwater and aquifers. Shale developments have been blamed for contaminating wells and the death of livestock exposed to potassium chloride in the water used to fracture the rock; this has led regulators to consider buffer zones around reservoirs and aquifers.

There has been no outcry in places such as the American states of Texas and Louisiana, where lawmakers have long supported the oil and gas industry. Indeed, Louisiana is offering tax incentives for people to install fuelling equipment that will allow vehicles to run on compressed natural gas. But in the north-eastern states, where the mood is less welcoming, Chesapeake Energy recently abandoned plans to drill in the New York watershed, which supplies unfiltered water to nine million people. “Why go through the brain damage of that, when we have so many other opportunities?” says Aubrey McClendon, its chief executive.

The Riverkeeper, a New York environmental group, has called for a permanent ban on drilling in ecologically sensitive areas such as the state’s Catskills region. But local governments are torn, given the number of jobs shale developments create at a time of high unemployment. A study by IHS Global Insight reported that gas contributed $385 billion to the US economy in 2008 and more than $180 billion in labour income alone; by comparison, the coal industry contributed $79.9 billion. More than 30 US states boasted at least 10,000 jobs directly or indirectly attributable to the gas industry.

At the end of 2008, the US department of energy (DoE) says domestic proven gas reserves rose by 3% to reach their highest level since the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) first reported them in 1977. Discoveries of 29.5 trillion cubic feet (835.3 billion cubic metres) of gas during 2008 represented the sixth consecutive annual increase, with reserves from shale reservoirs up 51% over 2007.

“It is very significant,” says Richard Newell of the EIA. Under most scenarios of future energy and climate legislation, US natural-gas production will increase during the next 20 years. But further ahead, the picture becomes less clear. By 2050, if the United States built more nuclear and wind-generating capacity and managed to capture and store the carbon emitted from coal-fired power stations, then it would be cheaper to use those technologies than to burn more gas and capture its carbon emissions, Newell says. “The size of the role natural gas would play depends on the availability of those other options.”

In its favour, he notes, gas-fired power stations can be built faster and more cheaply than coal equivalents and offer a better fit with renewable sources because they are easier to turn on and off to supplement wind and solar when the wind drops and the sun doesn’t shine. “Price is the main impediment,” Newell says.

And natural gas prices are unpredictable. In recent months, when gas fell below US$3 per million British thermal units (mBtu) – a seven-and-a-half-year low – that hardly seemed a cause for concern. But as recently as 2008, US gas prices reached a record US$13.69 per mBtu. Even at US$3.20 per mBtu, however, developing shale gas is profitable.

“Every square inch of my district has natural gas under it,” says Tim Murphy, a US congressman, referring to Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale, which runs from New York to Tennessee. “It’s going to have an impact on the whole nation.” T Boone Pickens, the 81-year-old oilman who has become a spokesman for the natural-gas industry, told the US congress in October that the United States has more natural gas than all the oil in Saudi Arabia. If the country converted 6.5 million of its heavy trucks to run on that gas, it could reduce its oil imports from OPEC producers by 2.5 million barrels a day.

To make that happen, Murphy says the United States must create incentives for public gas refuelling stations, or in-home gas refuelling, and plug-in vehicles. This can be funded, he argues, from the additional revenues the government will receive from gas producers if they have incentives to increase output. “It’s a solution that grows upon itself.”

The biggest believers are in the Haynesville Shale formation of Louisiana, where last year gas projects produced US$3.9 billion in household earnings and accounted for 33,000 new jobs, according to Loren C Scott & Associates, an economic consultancy. It estimates state and local tax revenues increased by at least $153.3 million in 2008 as a result. “It’s going to turn this parish upside down over the next five to 10 years,’’ says Tommy Craig, of the Community Bank of Louisiana. Deposits are already up 25% from late 2007.

Mike Smith is one of the few spending his windfall. Whereas others have run only to a new pick-up truck, he does not have a wife or children, so the money is his to spend. He has bought a couple of large-screen televisions and invested some of his payout, buying stock in Ford Motor Company when it hit $2 a share – “I have a bunch of it,” he says. But after years of thrift, even he has mostly held on to the money, using it for necessities such as medical bills. He was able to pay upfront to have a cancerous growth removed from the side of his nose, rather than cover the costs in instalments.

Other big winners from the shale rush remain cautious about spending their signing bonuses, despite the promise of royalty cheques once production begins. The Marshburn family, who own some 160 hectares, including a share in the most productive Haynesville well to date, are one example. Mike Marshburn, a 59-year-old former rodeo star in a black cowboy hat and a shiny silver buckle he won as a rider in the 1970s, has already banked his bonus but continues to work on the gas fields as a contract welder, while raising bucking bulls on the side.

His wife, Celia, a retired schoolteacher, lifts up her boots to reveal holes in the soles. And their daughter, Mila, 25, is working her way through 14-hour days in nursing school, despite her family’s sudden wealth. “I just tell my friends, ‘Hey, that’s my parents’ money. I’m going to make my own way.’” Her mother wants to create a beach on the lake their home overlooks, while her father has his eye on a new bull. But they are biding their time. “If these royalty cheques are big enough, I might retire,” Mike says.

Smith’s bonus will carry him through retirement, regardless of how big his royalty cheques turn out to be. His contract guarantees him 20 to 25% of what the company receives for gas under his land, and production is due to begin within months. He has a twinkle in his blue eyes when he talks of the dreams he can now afford to live out – hunting bears in Alaska; golfing at the Masters in Augusta, Georgia; seeing the vast expanses of Wyoming and Montana; building a new home amid the pine trees on his acreage. “I’m more or less a homebody,” he says. “I think it’s time I get out.”

In the meantime, he is training his nephew to take over the business so that he can retire next year. And on the weekends, he still heads out of town, to hunt on his land, among the pine trees and the well pads.

Shale oil next?

US energy companies may be able to use technologies they acquired in the hunt for shale gas to tap oil trapped in dense rock formations.

Oil is often harder to extract, given its viscosity and bigger molecules, so engineers are tweaking the process. “We believe this is going to be game-changing technology,” said Mark Papa, chairman of EOG Resources. “We believe there is enough oil in rock across the US and Canada to be of significant impact.”

While increasing the size of the world’s third-largest oil production base would be difficult, success could slow the decline in US oil output that has continued since the 1970s. Papa believes the process will prove economic with oil prices at US$45 to $50 a barrel, compared with around $80 today.

While nobody knows how much oil might be freed by the new techniques, Edward van den Heuvel, commercial opportunity manager for Shell Chemicals, said that on average about a third of the oil in a field is recovered. With two-thirds of the oil left in the ground, it makes sense to revisit reserves once believed to be trapped in impermeable rock.

The biggest success so far has been in the Bakken Formation of Montana and North Dakota, where there are an estimated 3.65 billion barrels of recoverable oil. Bill Albrecht, vice-president of Occidental Petroleum, the biggest US independent, says: “There is a huge resource here.” But the technique needs refining before it will win widespread adoption. “Relative to gas, it’s still an emerging technology,” he admits.

Sheila McNulty is the
Financial Times’s US energy correspondent.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2010

Homepage image from Chesapeake Energy