Thursday, November 15, 2012

Shale offers freedom and security – but it could be a trap

Exploiting shale gas and oil entails greenhouse gas emissions that will far outstrip our ability to adapt to the climate change they will cause.

Wars are fought over energy. So vital is it to the economy that the few custodians of the world's oil and gas wealth have the power to determine global booms and recessions.

At last, it seems, a new source of energy might liberate us from this conflict – fossil fuels trapped within dense rock for millennia that we are now able to free, thanks to advances in engineering unthinkable a decade ago, and that are available in countries from Britain to Australia. But those same fossil fuels, much higher in carbon than their conventional counterparts, are likely to unleash runaway climate change that could put paid to any hopes of a low-cost – and low-risk – energy future.

Exploiting these new forms of energy – shale gas and oil entails greenhouse gas emissions that will far outstrip our ability to adapt to the climate change they will cause. But history shows we are unlikely to be able to leave any of these chaos-causing fuels unexploited. For most of the past 30 years, the main question for the US has been how to ensure enough energy to meet the economy's needs. The oil shocks of the 1970s showed the economy's vulnerability to foreign imports. Since then, the goal of "energy security" has been crucial.

One route has been to exploit biofuels, made from maize, a policy introduced by George W Bush. But these are expensive as they divert food sources into use as fuel. A far better bet for the US, barely thinkable during Bush's presidency, is shale gas, which is transforming the US economy.

The first companies into shale were independents, leaving the more staid multinationals in their wake. Mitchell Energy and Development, subsequently bought by Devon Energy, was credited with being the first major exploiter. Pioneer Natural Resources was another. But the multinationals, led by ExxonMobil, soon caught up.

In less than 10 years, the US has become one of the prime producers of gas. The price of gas plummeted to only $2 a unit this year. That compares with about $9-12 in Europe, and about $15 in Asia. The International Energy Agency in 2011 heralded "a global golden age of gas" and new estimates show that, by 2017, the US could be the world's biggest producer of oil and gas.

But the plunging price of gas in the US has caused its own problems. At such low output prices, developing shale gas reserves becomes much less economically attractive. "Some companies have had financial difficulties," says Steven Estes, partner at KPMG in Dallas. He points to Chesapeake Energy, one of the pioneers: "Companies that were heavily involved in shale gas exclusively have really taken a hit."

The solution has been to explore the same gas fields to look for another prize – shale oil. While the price of natural gas has plunged, oil has kept its value. Liquids too can be trapped in dense shale rocks. But some shale gas fields will easily yield oil, while others will not. The difference between the two is heralding a huge difference between gas and oil producers in the US. Estes says: "Companies that have oil to exploit as well as gas – including Exxon and Shell, which have made acquisitions – are in the best position." More


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