Andrew Nikiforuk on New Report: Debunking the ‘Shale Gale’


From – May 16, 2011

by Andrew Nikiforuk

For several years now, the natural gas industry has
been exclaiming Hallelujahs about the marvels of shale gas with the
passion of a church choir belting out Handel’s “Messiah.”

The hallelujahs, which spring from the U.S.
Energy Information Administration (EIA) or the likes of Chesapeake
Energy (“American’s Champion of Natural Gas”), come in three happy

The first says that the shale gas
revolution will miraculously create 100 years worth of methane; the
second chorus maintains that the price of natural gas, a volatile
commodity, will stay low for decades; and the last chorus says that
natural gas will green the economy and arrest climate change.

But a new report by J. David Hughes, one of
North America’s foremost coal and gas experts, challenges every single
one of these faith-based assumptions with hard science and clear-eyed
math. In the stunningly lucid 64-page report
for the Post Carbon Institute, Hughes squarely concludes that all three
assumptions are highly questionable, if not total “impossibilities.”

Hughes is no wide-eyed greenie or industry
basher. He happens to be one of Canada’s most credible energy
scientists. The geologist worked for Natural Resources Canada for 32
years and mapped Canada’s coal and coal bed methane fields. He has also
served on Canada’s Natural Gas Potential Committee and is regarded as
one of the continent’s top global energy analysts. (B.C. politicians
take note: Hughes lives on Cortes Island on the West Coast.)

“Natural gas is a truly important resource.
But industry has overblown what shale gas can do for us,” says Hughes.
“Shale gas is an exercise in creating greater complexity with lower and
lower returns.”

Shale industry ‘hubris’

Until shale gas appeared on the scene,
analysts predicted a high noon for natural gas. Gas production in the
U.S. peaked in 1973, and has been on a bumpy production plateau ever
since. But then companies started to use horizontal drilling, combined
with hydraulic fracturing, to open deep rock formations once considered
as inaccessible as bowhead whales in the Arctic.

Hydraulic fracking, a high-energy technology that uses millions of gallons of water, sand and toxic chemicals to blast open methane trapped in dense rock, created a shale boom from Pennsylvania to northern B.C. and beyond.

The fracking energy binge, which
industrializes rural landscapes, sparked moratoriums in Quebec and New
York due to widespread concerns about surface and groundwater
contamination, and earthquakes from reinjected fracking fluids. U.S.
Energy Minister Steven Chu just ordered a high level investigation on fracking issues. Even France has banned the practice to protect its water-dependent cheese makers and grape growers.

Although T. Boone Pickens, the natural gas
lobby and some environmental groups now champion shale gas as a
“transition fuel” that could possibly retire coal plants and even power
vehicles, Hughes says the real production numbers don’t add up without
unprecedented levels of drilling.

For starters, industry hubris simply defies
the law of thermodynamics. From 1990 levels, U.S. gas drilling tripled
to 33,000 wells per year between 2006 and 2008 before collapsing back to
20,000 wells. In order to build a modest 21 per cent increase in
natural gas production, the gas industry constructed a complex
infrastructure nearly 100 per cent larger than what previously existed
in 1990.

“What matters are flow rates and how fast
the gas can be produced,” explains Hughes. “There may be 100 years worth
of methane in the ground, but it may take 800 years to produce it.”
Meanwhile, conventional gas production in both Canada and the U.S. is
declining rapidly. In other words, shale gas might temporarily replace
some of the air leaving the conventional gas tire — but not for long.

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About Damien Gillis

Damien Gillis is a Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker with a focus on environmental and social justice issues - especially relating to water, energy, and saving Canada's wild salmon - working with many environmental organizations in BC and around the world. He is the co-founder, along with Rafe Mair, of The Common Sense Canadian, and a board member of both the BC Environmental Network and the Haig-Brown Institute.