Saturday, February 1, 2014

Is Fracking All It's Fracked Up to Be? Jones Seminar and Video

Jones Seminar at Dartmouth

Once a week, Dartmouth Engineering School hosts the Jones Seminar, covering a topic of general interest.  Last week's seminar was Limits to Growth of Energy: Facts About Fracking in the US, presented by Dr. Dennis Meadows, University of New Hampshire.  I would summarize the lecture as below (my summary, not a direct quote):

"There's a great deal of unreasonable exuberance about fracking. However, shale gas is not going to be cheap and abundant. It is not going to save the U.S. economy."

About Dr. Meadows and about the video

Meadows is co-author of the book Limits to Growth, and was active in the Club of Rome project at MIT in 1970-1972. (Information from Wikipedia.)  However, this seminar was supposed to be mostly about fracking, and that was why I attended it.    

I have embedded the video of the talk below. Since the video is almost an hour and a half long, I will give a brief summary here:
  • In the first half hour, he says that fracking is oversold, but spend most of his time on models and limits-to-growth.  At around 29 minutes, he gives some numbers about coal and nuclear which do not jibe with my experience of those two technologies. 
  • Starting around 30 minutes, he discusses fracking.  He provides slides of typical well profiles and field profiles. The wells have lousy profiles, and the fields become "middle-aged" (best areas have been drilled and are declining) within a short time, maybe ten years or so.This isn't a century worth of cheap gas.
  • Zinger in the video: There's a very interesting section at the fifty-five minute mark. Meadows asks a rhetorical question: "If fracked gas is so bad, why is everyone so enthusiastic about it?"  His answer is that the enthusiasm is based on the idea that everyone in the gas industry has an incentive to lie about the situation.  Quite a strong statement!
A Credibility Gap Resolved

By the end of the talk, I actually hoped that shale gas would be a better resource than Dr. Meadows predicted.  I was also having some problems with his assessment of nuclear and coal. (I write more about that in a section below the video.)

Therefore, the question arises: if I didn't believe Meadows assessment of nuclear or coal, why was I believing him on the future of fracked gas?  Was I just a victim of confirmation bias: "He's finally saying something I agree with, so he must be right"?  I try to check my biases at the door, when possible.  Therefore, I emailed Meadows and asked him for the source of his slides on fracking.

Meadows was kind enough to send me the major source that he used for fracking information. This was a set of slides on The Shale Revolution (I link to it is a long pdf of slides) by J. David Hughes of the Post Carbon Institute.  Hughes article of the same title was published in Nature Magazine, which is a very reputable source. 

Now, the Post Carbon Institute is pretty much what you would expect it to be, including Bill McKibben as a member. Still, what I wanted to do was simple: I wanted to judge the credibility of Hughes fracking slides. I judged them to be completely credible.

In the Hughes slides, I saw well profiles of the type I have seen in many articles about fracking: 80% decline in well productivity within about three years.  I also saw whole-field profiles about well-drilling and production: these slides matched what I have read about drill counts, etc. According to the notes on his slides, Hughes slides were assembled from data that came from a very reputable source, DrillingInfo (data at this site is behind paywalls).

So, for me, this was a credibility gap resolved.  Whatever Dr. Meadows said in the rest of his talk, his section on the future of fracking was well-researched and credible.

There isn't a century of cheap abundant shale gas.  It's a bubble.

Supplementary Information on the Big Energy Picture

Meadows on Nuclear and Coal

 I had real questions on Meadows views of nuclear and coal. Meadows dismisses nuclear energy by saying we can't build it fast enough.  (He doesn't say how fast we are going to build renewables, but I suppose they will be built "fast enough"?)

Meadows talks more about coal, but I disagree with him. For example, around  the 29 minute mark Meadows says (or implies, his words are not clear) that we pulverize coal as part of pollution control for coal.  That if we just shoved it in the furnace we would have a better energy-return-on-investment.  Not really.  We pulverize coal for a very practical reason: pulverization allows us burn it hotter and get more thermodynamic efficiency out of the system.  Stoker systems just don't burn as hot, and that old efficiency equation still holds. 

Meadows also claims that coal clean-up brings the energy-return-on-investment for coal down from 80 to 10. (His slide 12) As someone who worked in coal clean-up and taught the All Around the Coal Boiler Course...this is just not right, in my opinion.  There is a significant parasitic load of various types with coal cleanup, but it doesn't cut the coal energy output to 1/8 of what it would otherwise be.    

Meadows has been good about answering questions, so I should probably ask him about his basis for the coal numbers.  But my interest was the future of fracking, not about  his assessment of coal, nuclear, wind, Malthus etc.  So I only asked him about the sources for his fracking information.  He was good about sharing this information, and I am pleased to share it with my readers.

My ideas about fracking 

Meadows seminar confirmed much of what I have been predicting about fracking.

When I first started at EPRI, I was in the geothermal group, which was part of the Renewable Resources division. I often found myself in a small group of people attempting to evaluate a "new" type of geothermal resource.  Our group looked at the Los Alamos Hot Dry Rock Project and at the geopressured zones near the Gulf of Mexico, among other areas.

Some general conclusions:
  • All things otherwise being equal, a more expensive well produces more expensive fluid.
  • A well with poor permeability can be fracked to produce more fluid, but you will have a better well (producing more fluid overall) if the well itself has good permeability. 
How does this relate to fracking?  Well, drilling a horizontal shale gas well is more expensive than drilling a conventional gas well. Also, the need to frack the shale shows the original permeability is low. So I expect shale gas to be basically more expensive than "regular" gas.

Imagine my surprise to find people who are convinced that shale gas is cheap now, and going to be cheap and abundant forever!  Whenever I objected to this scenario for the future of gas prices, people looked at me as if I were crazy. Some said that I just want nuclear to be the low-cost provider so I'm hating on shale gas.

No.  Expensive wells with poor production profiles (shale gas wells) make expensive gas.  We're in a low-price gas bubble now, but the bubble and the low prices are unlikely to last.  

In other words, in the shale gas overview, Dr. Meadows and I agree.


Brad Fiander said...


Until recently I had the same opinion regarding the longevity of cheap gas. Fracked wells are expensive to drill and don't produce as much gas as traditional wells into porous formations. So no one would drill a well for gas when the price is low. If there's no new drilling, the supply will tighten and the price will rise.

Then I had a conversation with a gas buyer who pointed out that much of the "new" gas is a byproduct of fracked oil wells. Since the liquids are valuable enough to pay for the well, the gas is being disposed of at whatever price they can get for it. I don't think there has been any drilling for fracked gas recently, only drilling where liquids are to be found. Except perhaps in the northeast where capacity constraints allow the price of gas to skyrocket on occasion.

As long as the oil shale boom lasts, there is potential for cheap gas. Until of course demand catches up with supply again.

Brad Fiander

Travelogue for the Universe said...

Thanks so much Meredith for posting. Our cash strapped pipeline fracking fighter compatriots are running out of cards. We face constant opposition to our opposition to Canadians Running high pressure gas lines through hill and valleys, under Lake Champlain to smelly international paper. Overwhelming.

Meredith Angwin said...

Brad and Mary

Thank you for the notes!

Brad, thank you for your note.

I have also heard this, and I need to give it more thought or research or something. The issue I have is...where are these oil plays? I think the Bakken is the biggest one, and that is a long way from Vermont. And I think they are flaring a lot of the gas at Bakken. Yes, I just looked it up in Wikipedia....flaring all the gas. The local Marcellus shale seems to be natural-gas-only, and drilling in that area has stopped from the low prices.

With oil prices high and likely to remain so, I agree that the price of gas can go VERY low...if there are already pipelines in place to deliver it, etc. Gas is too inexpensive now to even think of building pipelines from North Dakota. And if gas becomes more expensive, it may well become abundant...but not cheap!

Do you have (or know where to obtain) statistics on gas associated with oil shales, and what percent of our gas supply it is? That would be great.