But the gas may not be as easy and cheap to extract from shale formations deep underground as the companies are saying, according to hundreds of industry e-mails and internal documents and an analysis of data from thousands of wells.
In the e-mails, energy executives, industry lawyers, state geologists and market analysts voice skepticism about lofty forecasts and question whether companies are intentionally, and even illegally, overstating the productivity of their wells and the size of their reserves. Many of these e-mails also suggest a view that is in stark contrast to more bullish public comments made by the industry, in much the same way that insiders have raised doubts about previous financial bubbles.
“Money is pouring in” from investors even though shale gas is “inherently unprofitable,” an analyst from PNC Wealth Management, an investment company, wrote to a contractor in a February e-mail. “Reminds you of dot-coms.”
“The word in the world of independents is that the shale plays are just giant Ponzi schemes and the economics just do not work,” an analyst from IHS Drilling Data, an energy research company, wrote in an e-mail on Aug. 28, 2009.
In scores of internal e-mails and documents, officials within the Energy Information Administration, or E.I.A., voice skepticism about the shale gas industry.Interesting stuff, and both pieces are highly recommended reading.
One official says the shale industry may be “ set up for failure.” “It is quite likely that many of these companies will go bankrupt,” a senior adviser to the Energy Information Administration administrator predicts. Several officials echo concerns raised during previous bubbles, in housing and in technology stocks, for example, that ended in a bust.
Energy Information Administration employees also explain in e-mails and documents, copies of which were obtained by The New York Times, that industry estimates might overstate the amount of gas that companies can affordably get out of the ground.
They discuss the uncertainties about how long the wells will be productive as well as the high prices some companies paid during the land rush to lease mineral rights. They also raise concerns about the unpredictability of shale gas drilling.
One senior Energy Information Administration official describes an “irrational exuberance” around shale gas. An internal Energy Information Administration document says companies have exaggerated “the appearance of shale gas well profitability,” are highlighting the performance of only their best wells and may be using overly optimistic models for projecting the wells’ productivity over the next several decades.
However, I have a meta question about the editorial decisions at the New York Times over coverage of fossil fuel supply issues. On the one hand, over the last five years when it comes to questions of oil supply and peak oil, the New York Times has fairly consistently put out a long line of pieces that basically regurgitate oil industry PR, particularly from the consultancy CERA, about how there's no problem, supply will be plentiful, etc, etc. Under the bylines of Jad Mouawad and Clifford Krauss, there's been an almost complete lack of balance or skepticism. For example, critical examination of claims by Saudi Arabia has been very much warranted in my opinion, and the New York Times has been almost totally missing in action here.
The contrast with the recent series of very hard-hitting investigative pieces on shale gas couldn't be greater.
So why the difference? One possibility is it's a fluke of individual reporting preferences. Mouawad and Krauss are go-with-the-flow guys happy to write whatever Daniel Yergin tells them, while Urbina is a suspicious guy with a strong investigative drive who doesn't take anything at face value, and it's simply chance that the former got assigned to the oil stories, and the latter to the shale gas story.
However, I have another (highly speculative) theory. The New York Times basically reflects the interests and desires of the society in which its editors move - the upper middle classes of New York City: wealthy, but also politically and socially liberal. They'd like to see the world a better place, but they also don't want doing so to have a significant impact on their own lifestyles.
Seen from this standpoint, peak oil is bad news, since these folks drive late model Mercedes, Porsches, and BMWs, fly everywhere on business and vacation, and don't want to stop doing these things.
However, shale gas is a different story. The New York upper middle classes have summer places and take regular weekend getaways in various parts of upstate New York, and they don't want this playground messed up with a bunch of industrial fossil fuel extraction. This could happen with wholesale fracking of the Marcellus and Utica shales:
So resources are assigned to dig up dirt on shale gas and write very skeptical stories about it, in a way they never have been about oil supply issues.
Dissents, or other theories, are welcome in comments...