Conflicting forecasts for natural gas

A new study suggests that estimates for U.S. supplies may be vastly overstated.

 

The wide-scale deployment of hydraulic fracturing, the technique of blasting water and chemicals into the ground to release trapped hydrocarbons, has, over the last decade, vaulted the U.S. into the position of leading natural gas producer in the world.

In these boom times, natural gas has been hailed by a wide cross-section, from energy CEOs to the president, as an important "bridge" fuel source in the shift away from coal. In his latest State of the Union address, President Obama laid out his ambitious vision for natural gas in the national energy mix: “Natural gas – if extracted safely, is the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change,” Obama said. 

But, as with shale oil, there is emerging evidence that the U.S. natural gas boom may be built on shaky numbers. 

A recent study from researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that the estimated volume of natural gas in four of the U.S.’s largest shale plays – the Marcellus, Haynesville, Fayetteville and Barnett – is likely to be vastly overstated.

Wellpads, access roads, pipeline corridors and other natural-gas infrastructure in the Jonah Field of western Wyoming's upper Green River valley. By Flickr user SkyTruth.
Funded with a $1.5 million grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Texas team spent more than three years analyzing industry data and forecasts from the Energy Information Administration (or EIA, the data analysis branch of the Department of Energy), which projects that production from those four major fields will continue to increase for more than two decades before finally plateauing.

“(A) careful examination of the assumptions behind such bullish forecasts suggests that they may be overly optimistic, in part because the government’s projections rely on coarse-grained studies of major shale formations,” writes energy reporter Mason Inman, discussing the University of Texas research team’s findings in the latest issue of the journal Nature. “Now, researchers are analyzing those formations in much greater detail and are issuing more-conservative forecasts.” The results of the UT team’s detailed analysis suggests that instead of peaking in 2040, the “big four” will instead peak in 2020 and decline sharply after that.

The reason, explains Inman, is that gas tends not to be evenly distributed throughout a formation – as the EIA analysis assumes – but is typically found in relatively small “sweet spots.” This not only hints at a lower overall volume of gas, but also means that fewer wells can potentially be drilled to extract what’s there.

The matter is not merely academic. If the estimates are overstated, Inman points out, it could have serious repercussions for companies that are investing heavily in infrastructure projects such as new natural gas fired plants or export terminals to ship liquefied natural gas overseas.  

The findings parallel those of David Hughes, a private analyst who has authored several reports for the Santa Rosa-based Post-Carbon Institute. His latest report, “Drilling Deeper,” released at the end of October, suggests that the top seven natural gas plays in the U.S. will underperform EIA estimates by almost 40 percent between over the next 25 years. “By 2040, production rates from these plays will be about one-third that of the EIA forecast,” reads a press release on Hughes’s report. “Production from shale gas plays other than the top seven will need to be four times that estimated by the EIA in order to meet its reference case forecast.”

In addition to new challenges to once unquestioned resource estimates, recent studies have pointed to major “fugitive emissions” from the nation’s natural gas fields. A study last year from NOAA found that as much as 12 percent of the natural gas produced in Utah’s Uintah Basin escaped into the atmosphere; another NOAA study of the Los Angeles Basin found the percentage as high as 17 percent. (Methane is of particular concern as a greenhouse gas since it is more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide in trapping solar radiation in the atmosphere over a period of 100 years.)

In October, as HCN senior editor Jonathan Thompson reported, NASA released findings from its satellites revealing the country’s largest single methane hotspot over the gas fields of the San Juan Basin, in northwestern New Mexico. Though some were quick to point to hydraulic fracturing as the likely cause of the New Mexico methane cloud, the high levels are said to predate the use of the practice in the region. The San Juan Basin is different from other major plays such as the Marcellus in that the gas is trapped in seams within coal formations rather than tight shale rock.

All of which is to say that evidence is mounting, calling into question the vision of natural gas as a clean and abundant fuel source of the future.

Jeremy Miller is a contributing editor to High Country News and he writes from Northern California.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...