Fracking and Red Queen Syndrome

November 4, 2013

I posted on David Hughes analysis of Fracking’s contradictions over the weekend. Hughes spoke at the Michigan Futures conference on Saturday.

Now USAToday has this.


Surging oil and gas production is nudging the nation closer to energy independence. But new research suggests the boom could peter out long before the United States reaches this decades-old goal.

Many wells behind the energy gush are quickly losing productivity, and some areas could hit peak levels sooner than the U.S. government expects, according to analyses presented last week at a Geological Society of America meeting in Denver.

“It’s a temporary bonanza,” says J. David Hughes, an energy expert at the Post Carbon Institute, a research group focused on sustainability. He studied two of the nation’s largest shale rock formations, now the source of huge amounts of oil and gas, and said they could start declining as early as 2016 or 2017.

The reason: “sweet spots” — small areas with the highest yields. Hughes says these spots simply don’t last long. Unless more wells are drilled, the Bakken shale of North Dakota and Montana loses 44% of its production after a year and the Eagle Ford shale of Texas, 34%. Most of the nation’s major shale regions produce both oil and gas.

“You have to keep drilling more and more just to maintain production,” says Hughes, adding this can become too costly to be profitable. He notes oil production in the Bakken, which skyrocketed between 2008 and 2012, has already started to slow down and Eagle’s Ford may soon follow. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects both shale plays will hit their oil peak in 2020, declining afterward.

The article goes on to quote Charles Hall – who was also a speaker at the conference.

Taking a similarly pessimistic view is Charles Hall, professor at the State University of New York, Syracuse and author of Energy and the Wealth of Nations. His analysis of Bakken production, now accounting for nearly a third of all U.S. oil from shale, found almost all its oil comes from just a few “sweet spots.” He also cited EIA data that show gas production has been falling since mid-2012 in the Barnett of Texas and the Haynesville of Texas and Louisiana.

Business Week:

Chesapeake Energy’s (CHK) Serenity 1-3H well near Oklahoma City came in as a gusher in 2009, pumping more than 1,200 barrels of oil a day and kicking off a rush to drill that extended into Kansas. Now the well produces less than 100 barrels a day, state records show. Serenity’s swift decline sheds light on a dirty secret of the oil boom: It may not last. Shale wells start strong and fade fast, and producers are drilling at a breakneck pace to hold output steady. In the fields, this incessant need to drill is known as the Red Queen, after the character in Through the Looking-Glass who tells Alice, “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

The U.S. is producing 7.8 million barrels of oil a day, more than it has in a quarter-century. Crude from shale formations has cut reliance on imports and put the U.S. closer to energy independence than it’s been since 1989. The International Energy Agency predicted last year that the U.S. would overtake Saudi Arabia by 2020 as the world’s largest producer.

Whether current production can hold up is the subject of debate. David Hughes, a geoscientist and president of Global Sustainability Research, has examined the life span of shale wells. “The Red Queen syndrome just gets worse and worse and worse,” he says. “The higher production goes, the more wells you need to offset the decline.”

In North Dakota’s Bakken shale, a well formally known as Robert Heuer 1-17R put out 2,358 barrels in May 2004, when it went live. The output proved there was money to be made drilling in the Bakken and kicked off an oil rush in North Dakota. Continental Resources (CLR), the well’s operator, built a monument to it. Production declined 69 percent in the first year. “I look at shale as more of a retirement party than a revolution,” says Art Berman, a petroleum geologist who spent 20 years with what was then Amoco and now runs his own firm, Labyrinth Consulting Services, in Sugar Land, Tex. “It’s the last gasp.”

If this news about shale production is correct, the transition to renewables is not only something we should do as moral, thinking beings, it is something we must do as quickly as possible to maintain any kind of civilized society as we know it.

15 Responses to “Fracking and Red Queen Syndrome”

  1. Was this not in the plans all along? Provinces in Canada introduced incentives for the early production from shale wells and oil companies lauded the fact that by the time ordinary royalties kick in the wells would be depleted, thus royalty payments would be negligible.

  2. jimbills Says:

    “If this news about shale production is correct, the transition to renewables is not only something we should do as moral, thinking beings, it is something we must do as quickly as possible to maintain any kind of civilized society as we know it.”

    The great joke about maintaining the fossil fuel status quo is that no one, not even the most optimistic analysts, thinks it will last forever. Arguing for more drilling just shrinks the timeline for having to switch to something else, anyway. Analysts argue over the timeline of when the resource limits become a serious problem (they range from 7 years in the past to 100 years in the future). But few analysts account for growth (which results in faster and faster depletion) and they tend to look at total reserves instead of recoverable reserves when judging the timeline (because they give unlimited faith to free market economic theory – if it’s there, the market figures out how to produce and consume it). Analysts who are viewed as “pessimists” like Hughes and Berman, at the worst case, are simply showing that energy is not something we can take for granted forever, and that if we had an ounce of sense we’d start considering our options, and the sooner the better.

    This is a big reason why the 100 year natural gas meme, repeated by people like President Obama, is truly dangerous. We only tend to care about our own skins, so if the public is told they have 100 years not to worry about it, they won’t worry about it. And what if the 100 year estimate is wrong in the first place?

    • It’s worse than that.  (Let’s see if I can use ordered lists here—blast the lack of a preview!)Much of the trucking industry, 27 billion gallons/year of diesel, is in the beginning of a mass conversion to CNG and LNG.Several LNG export terminals have been approved for construction, with more applications pending.Policy is to eliminate new coal-fired plants and eventually close old ones, shifting to natural gas.

      The RQS has been a theme at The Oil Drum for some time.  It’s pretty obviously true; the people who point to today’s upturn as “proof” that oil independence is just around the corner obviously can’t figure out that $90/bbl for today’s blip means “abundance” expands to “abundant as beluga caviar, as seen by Michael Bloomberg:  no shortage in his household!”

      It also means that any system reliant on natural gas as a backup fuel is in deep trouble also.  Yes, this means wind, solar and any combination.

  3. jamesboley11 Says:

    Always omitted from the “Oh, wait – here’s some MORE oil or gas or coal . . . so everything is OK now” arguments:
    MORE carbon-based fuel combustion =

  4. It’s the same meaningless mantra, endlessly. When talking about resources, it’s always “at today’s rate of consumption”. When talking about the need for more resources, it’s always “growth will double and we need more resources to sustain our way of life(wasteful inefficiency) or it’s back to the Stone Age.” Sounds like talk out of both sides of the mouth. It can’t be both. The endless growth canard has been recently debunked in these pages.

  5. kingdube Says:

    Endless growth through distributed compact nuclear sources.

  6. What could possibly go wrong with nukes as ubiquitous as local taverns? I guess all the math is wrong, because this proves endless growth is real. Let’s party.

  7. kingdube Says:

    I just knew one or two would see the light.

    • Yes. Light from the largest thermonuclear power source in our solar system.
      Before recoverable fossil fuels are exhausted, a future generation’s leaders will have to make the decision on using those fossil fuels for an energy source or to make plastics to supplement recycled plastics.

  8. Albert Mata Says:

    Its Coming Fast , The Red Queen must Keep Running to Stay in one Place

  9. […] You can see that since 2009 the oil companies have worked very hard to supply the market with oil. The efforts have been compared to The Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland (“Fracking and The Red Queen Syndrome” from Climate Crocks): […]

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