Shale gas is booming in the United States, where more than 2 million wells have been drilled since 2007. The sudden jump in supply has made gas in the US three times cheaper than in Europe and four times cheaper than in Japan. Proponents estimate global development of shale gas could quintuple world gas reserves. But experts warn that the way shale gas is being extracted will make its value short-lived.
In September 2013, a Stanford University study concluded that the long-term impact of shale gas on the American economy will be “marginal.” A report by French experts at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI) criticized the gold-rush mentality that is putting short-term profits ahead of long-term production.
HIGH RETURNS, SHORT WELL LIFE
The US shale gas boom is driven by a multitude of small, often speculative investors; on average, 80% of a well’s resources are exhausted after just two years, and developers are focused on keeping their costs low. As a result, the hydraulic fracturing process has evolved little since American engineer George Mitchell’s pioneering work in 1991.
of a shale gas well’s resources are exhausted after just two years.
“It’s much trickier than it seems because we need to drill in areas that often stretch over several kilometers and are located under 30 or 40 layers of rock,” said Atanu Basu, the creator of Ayata, based in Austin, Texas (USA), which employs big-data technology to analyze underlying rock layers before drilling begins. “Today, an estimated 80% of North American shale gas output comes from just 20% of fracking stages.” Catherine Gautier is a geology professor at the University of California in Santa Barbara and co-author of Shale Gas: New Eldorado or Dead End? “The operating model currently used in the USA must be seen against a very favorable backdrop of low costs, spacious drilling areas and conciliatory regulations,” Gautier said.
The difficulty of exporting the US model is evident in Poland, where the global oil and gas company Total pulled out of its Polish shale gas project in April 2014. It’s the latest example of uncertainty about fracking’s future.
SEEKING SAFER TECHNOLOGIES
Opponents contend that fracking pollutes the soil and leaks methane, believed to contribute to global warming. “Leaks of 4% or 5% throughout the production cycle could make gas extraction as harmful as coal,” Gautier said. “According to some studies, today’s fugitive emissions could already reach between 4.6% and 7.9% over a well’s entire lifecycle.” In a world hungry for energy, however, fracking is likely to continue. Therefore, scientists are seeking better production methods to reduce its impacts. Alternatives do exist, but research results remain mixed. Fluropropane is controversial.
Thermal and electrical fracturing are still in the laboratory. “If we wish to make shale gas a sustainable lynchpin in our energy mix, we must develop more reliable and environmentally safe technological solutions,” said Jean-Louis Fellous, an atmospheric physicist who is Gautier’s co-author. Such research will require the combined effort of public and industrial leaders, Fellous said. “Today, extraction is an enormous issue, and the universities do not have the necessary financing.
”Thierry Bros, senior European gas and LNG analyst for French bank Société Générale and author of After the US Shale Gas Revolution, believes regulation could help mobilize industrialists. “Regulation is too coercive to them,” Bros said.
“It should encourage transparency and greater control of their extraction process. If Europe takes up the challenge, it could promote a real alternative shale gas production model and export this know-how to other markets.” When that day comes, shale gas will play a more valuable role in a global, sustainable-energy future. ◆
Régis de Closets is a French science journalist who has produced documentaries for French television and written for Le Figaro, Le Nouvel Economist, and the international management journal Outlook.