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US shale gas bubble is ready to burst

"If we don't back this technology, we will miss a massive opportunity to help families with their bills and make our country more competitive." David Cameron. “Cuadrilla's never said it [shale] will bring down prices… We don't think it will bring down prices.” Cuadrilla spokesperson.

So what exactly are the economics of a shale gas boom? Let's look at what is happening in the US, where the fracking industry is much further down the road. An article by Nicole Foss in the "Automatic Earth" column of Business Insider says:

The shale gas bubble is a perfect example of the irrationality of markets, the power of perverse short-term incentives, the driving force of momentum-chasing, the dominance of perception over reality in determining prices, and the determination for a herd to stampede over a cliff all at once.

The perception of a gas glut has driven prices so low that none of the participants are making money (at least not by producing gas) or creating value. We see a familiar story of excessive debt, and the hollowing out of productive companies dead set on pursuing a mirage.

Financial journalist Wolf Richter describes the economics of fracking as “horrid”. Drilling is, he says, “destroying capital at an astonishing  rate” and drillers are left with a mountain of debt just as production declines.

Arthur Berman, a petroleum geologist, says that in the Eagle Ford shale in Texas, gas output per well declines so fast that to keep production at the same level they must drill almost 1,000 new wells a year, costing between $10-$12bn. "I add all these things up and it starts to approach the amount of money needed to bail out the banking industry. Where is that money going to come from?” he asks.

A bit of research into the official figures underlines the reality.  In 1990, there were 269,790 natural gas wells in the United States (on and offshore) producing 1,938,977 million cubic feet of gas, that is 7.18 million cubic feet per well.

US natural gas wells

US natural gas withdrawals

US natural gas deivered

US natural gas price

By 2011 there were 514,637 wells producing 2,536,889 million cubic feet, that is 4.92 million cubic feet per well. If each thousand new wells drilled cost Berman's estimate of $10bn dollars, that means a total investment of around $245 billon.

The price of gas to US residential users was at its highest in 2008 at $20.77 per thousand cubic feet when the boom was already underway. The price at the end of 2012 was $12.62 dollars per thousand cubic feet. That is higher than before the start of the gas boom – in January 1981 it was $3.94 as the graph shows.

What we have is the anatomy of a classic bubble but the Obama administration is oblivious, rubbing its hands at the short-term gains in increased tax revenue, just as George Osborne is hoping to do.

And when the bubble bursts? They will be astounded when companies collapse and enforced mergers take place. Capitalist economists and governments never expect the collapse – they live in a fantasy land where, whatever happened in the past, the future is rosy.

And whilst "drilling is burning capital at an astonishing rate", we are told that it is impossible to raise the investment for renewable energy to replace fossil fuels.

The question is, are we going to allow the frackers/wreckers to destroy large areas of Britain, putting people's health and homes at risk, just to inflate a bubble with no long-term economic benefit, no long-term energy benefit, and a disastrous effect on climate?

Judging by the response at Balcombe and the creation of dozens of local anti-fracking groups, the answer is a resounding “No”!

Penny Cole
Environment editor
29 August 2013

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