April 3, 2012

News from the Oil Patch

EPA Dismisses Suit Against Range

The Environmental Protection Agency has thrown in the towel. It dismissed its suit against Range Resources that sought to enforce its emergency order claiming that Range was responsible for contamination of water wells in Parker County. See Bloomberg's article here.

I have previously written about this controversy. See my previous posts here and here and here and here and here. The EPA alleged that the water well belonging to the Lipskys had been contaminated with methane by Range's fracing of wells in the area. Range called a hearing at the Railroad Commission and invited the EPA and the Lipskys to attend, but they declined. The RRC found that Range's well was not the cause of the water well contamination; it concluded that the methane was naturally occurring and was caused when the water well was drilled too deep, into a shallow gas formation. Range fought the EPA's allegations vigorously. So far, the EPA has been unable to link any groundwater contamination to hydraulic fracturing.

The Lipskys also filed a civil suit against Range seeking damages -- a big mistake. Range got the Lipsky's case dismissed, on the ground that the RRC had already determined that Range was not at fault. Range filed a counterclaim against the Lipskys for defamation and to recover the costs of its litigation, and also filed a cross claim against the Lipskys' expert Alisha Rich, claiming that she conspired with the Lipskys to produce false evidence in the case. Those claims remain pending.

Horizontal Wells Now Have As Many As 20 Frac Stages

In 2003, the average number of frac stages for a horizontal well was four. (A "frac stage" is the process of using hydraulic fracturing in an isolated segment of a horizontal well, thus concentrating the pressure and energy in a limited portion of the formation.) Last year, the average number of frac stages was twenty. Lateral lengths have also increased dramatically. In 2003, the average lateral length in Tarrant County (the Barnett Shale) was 2,433 feet. In 2010, it was 3,599 feet. The standard length in the Eagle Ford is now a mile (5,280 feet), and some wells are being drilled to 8,000 feet or more.

GAO Says That Regulators Don't Have Sufficient Information to Ensure Safety of Gathering Lines

The US General Accounting Office has issued a report on the safety of gathering lines. Gathering lines are generally the pipelines that go from the well head to the transmission line. While transmission lines are heavily regulated by US and state regulators, gathering lines are for the most part unregulated. The GAO report says that:

state pipeline safety agencies cited construction quality, maintenance practices, unknown or uncertain locations, and limited or no information on pipeline integrity as among the highest risks for federally unregulated pipelines. Without data on these risk factors, pipeline safety officials are unable to assess and manage safety risks associated with these pipelines.

Coal Industry Struggles Because of Cheap Natural Gas

Bloomberg reports that Appalachian coal companies are in trouble because utilities are switching to cheaper natural gas:

For U.S. power utilities, who consumed 90 percent of the country's coal production in 2010, the prospect of relatively cheaper gas supplies now and in the foreseeable future has pushed them to switch some of their generation to gas-burning plants from units that use coal.

KNOC To Buy El Paso E&P Unit for $7.15 Billion

A consortium of companies including the Korea National Oil Company is buying El Paso Corp's exploration and production assets. Kinder Morgan previously acquired El Paso Corp. for $21 Billion and announced that it would sell its E&P business.

Valero and Chesapeake May Put CNG Pumps on Texas Highways

Valero and Chesapeake are negotiating to install natural gas fueling stations for vehicles on Texas roads. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has offered $4.5 million in grants to establish a triangle of CNG fuel stations between Houston, Dallas and San Antonio.

Eagleford Expands into Fayette County

Eagleford shale wells are being drilled in the southwestern part of Fayette County, expanding the north edge of the field. Nine wells have been drilled so far. Oil production from the Eagleford has climbed from 12,981 bbl of oil/condensate in 2006 to 55 million barrels in 2011. By comparison, oil production from the Bakken, Three Forks and Sanish shale plays in North Dakota, the other big oil shale area in the US, was 129 million barrels in 2011. EOG Resources' CEO Mark Papa predicted that oil shales could add another 1.5 million barrels/day of oil to US production by 2015.

Investor Groups Complain About Flaring of Gas

Thirty-six large institutional investors representing $500 billion in assets sent a letter to 21 E&P companies pushing them to disclose the amount of natural gas flared in connection with their oil shale production. Because of a lack of pipeline infrastructure and low gas prices, companies producing shale oil in North Dakota and Texas are flaring much of the gas produced from their wells. The investors claim that flared gas in North Dakota produced 2 million tons of carbon dioxide last year, the equivalent of 384,000 extra cars on the road. The investor group claims that, even with low natural gas prices, the state of North Dakota lost about $110 million in revenue last year from the flaring. Companies anxious to get oil flowing from their wells begin oil production before the necessary gas gathering and transmission lines are in place.

Petrochina Now Produces More Oil Than Exxon

The Associated Press reported last week that Petrochina, the Chinese national oil company, now produces more oil than Exxon and has become the world's largest oil producer. Petrochina announced that it pumped 2.4 million barrels a day last year, exceeding Exxon by 100,000 barrels. Exxon's output decreased 5.5% last year, while Petrochina's increased 3.3%.




March 12, 2012

EIA Creates New Toy for Energy Geeks

I love graphs. The Energy Information Administration, the guys that crunch numbers on all things energy-related, have come up with a new way to let us graph-lovers play with their data. The new interface is in its beta testing version, and you can play with it here. The site allows you to create your own graphs by selecting the data you want to depict. This allows you to compare two or more sets of data in graphic form. Here are some examples:

Well Head vs Res Price.jpg


Consumption by sector.jpg

production vs consumption.jpg 


Imports vs exports.jpg 



Gasoline price vs stocks - Texas.jpg 

Try it for yourself. It's fun, and you may learn something in the process.

March 11, 2012

Rolling Stone Picks Fight with Aubrey McClendon

Rolling Stone magazine's Jeff Goodell has weighed in on the debate over natural gas reserves, the safety of hydraulic fracturing, global warming, methane groundwater contamination, and Chesapeake Energy's controversial finances, in an article titled "The Big Fracking Bubble: The Scam Behind the Gas Boom." Goodell pulled no punches. He calls Aubrey McClendon, Chesapeake's CEO, "an influential right-wing power broker." He says that "Fracking, it turns out, is about producing cheap energy the same way the mortgage crisis was about helping realize the dreams of middle-class homeowners." He claims that "for Chesapeake, the primary profit in fracking comes not from selling the gas itself, but from buying and flipping the land that contains the gas," and that Chesapeake "has more in common with Enron than ExxonMobil."

Goodell's article covers ground that is not new in the debate over the safety, ecology and economics of hydraulic fracturing. He touches on the study by Anthony Engraffea at Cornell University on whether natural gas has less global-warming effect than coal. He discusses the Duke University study of methane in water wells in Pennsylvania. He quotes Arthur Berman (Berman says miss-quoted), a long-time critic of the industry's estimates of shale gas reserves.

McClendon says he agreed to talk to Goodell after he was told that the magazine would publish an article on Chesapeake whether it cooperated or not. Chesapeake has issued a rebuttal to the article ("Although our expectations for honesty and fairness were quite low, the writer failed to reach even that low bar."), and Goodell has responded to Chesapeake's rebuttal ("The company entirely dodges the article's central point: that Chesapeake is a highly-leveraged firm operated by a corporate gambler who engaged in complex scheme to profit off the illusion that America has a virtually unlimited supply of cheap natural gas."). (Isn't the internet amazing?) 

Last Thursday I went to a showing of spOILed, a documentary about the oil and gas industry by journalist turned media analyst Mark Mathis. I recommend the movie as a good effort by a non-expert journalist to understand and analyze the place, importance and future of hydrocarbons in the world today. Unlike Goodell, Mathis comes down on the side of industry. He concludes that, like it or not, the world is dependent on hydrocarbons, which have made our 21st century economy and lifestyle possible; and that the world will not soon develop alternate sources of energy that could wean us from dependence on hydrocarbons, and so must continue to develop available reserves to prevent a catastrophic rise in energy prices if demand exceeds supply.

Whether you agree with Mathis or Goodell, the debate over energy and its future is one that should continue, and good journalists making real efforts to understand and explain the issues in ways that the general public can understand should be encouraged. Remarkably, there is very little debate over these issues in the political sphere, despite the recent environmental disasters -- the Gulf oil spill and the near-meltdown of nuclear reactors following the tsunami in Japan. I would encourage Mathis to read Goodell, and I would recommend Mathis' movie to Goodell. Each could learn something to learn from the other.


March 3, 2012

Texas Supreme Court Affirms its Decision in Denbury Pipeline Case

This week, the Texas Supreme Court denied Denbury Green Pipeline's motion for rehearing in Texas Rice Land Partners v. Denbury, leaving essentially untouched its conclusion that pipelines must prove that they serve the public in order to exercise eminent domain power.

I wrote about this case a couple of weeks ago. See my prior discussion here. Pipeline companies had deluged the Court with briefs after its initial opinion, claiming that the Court's decision will halt pipeline construction across the state.

While denying Denbury's motion for rehearing, the Court did issue a revised opinion that made some changes to its language. The Court's opinion adds language responding to some of the arguments of the friend-of-the-court briefs filed by other pipeline companies; and the revised opinion changes the holding as follows:

We accordingly hold that for a person intending to build a CO2 pipeline to qualify as a common carrier under Section 111.002(6), a reasonable probability must exist that the pipeline will at some point after construction serve the public by transporting gas for one or more customers who will either retain ownership of their gas or sell it to parties other than the carrier.

The Court also added a footnote to its holding: "Our decision today is limited to persons seeking common-carrier pipeline status under Section 111.002(6) [of the Natural Resources Code]. We express no opinion on pipelines where common-carrier status is at issue under other provisions of the Natural Resources Code or elsewhere." (Section 111.002(6) relates only to pipelines that transport carbon dioxide. Other provisions of the Code cover pipelines that carry natural gas and hydrocarbons.)

James Mann, an Austin attorney and lobbyist for the pipeline industry, was quoted in the Houston Chronicle as commenting that "It's unclear to us just how bad this opinion is. If it only affects CO2 pipelines, it can be survived. If the same holdings are applied to all other types of pipelines, it is disaster for the oil and gas industry." Kent Sullivan, a lawyer with Sutherland Asbill & Brennan in Houston, said that the opinion represents "a substantial shift in power or potential leverage" for landowners. Sullivan predicted that the issue is likely to be a topic in the 2013 legislative session.



February 24, 2012

Texas Supreme Court (finally) Decides EAA v. Day - a Victory for Landowners?

The Texas Supreme Court issued its opinion today in Edwards Aquifer Authority v. Day, more than a year after it was argued and some thirteen years after the controversy began. It has been eagerly awaited as the court's ruling on whether a landowner has a "vested" right in groundwater under his/her land. The Court held that groundwater, like oil and gas, is "an exclusive and private property right ... inhering in virtue of [the landowner's] proprietorship of the land, and of which he may not be deprived without a taking of private property." The case is being heralded by property rights advocates as a victory for private property rights. The court's decision, in an opinion by Justice Nathan Hecht, was unanimous.

The opinion is certainly not surprising. It would have been a surprise to most people to learn that they do not have ownership rights in groundwater under their property. But I question whether it is such a victory for property owners and whether it will materially change the current regulatory scheme for groundwater in Texas.

Justice Hecht's opinion, 49 pages, includes a good summary of the history of groundwater regulation and litigation in Texas over the last 100 years. Remarkably, in all that time the Court had never ruled on the question of whether landowners have a property right in groundwater. The court held that the same rules should apply to groundwater as apply to oil and gas - in both, the landowner has an ownership right in the substance under his/her land, subject to being divested of that ownership by drainage from wells on adjacent lands, and subject to reasonable regulation by the state.

In EAA v. Day, two farmers owned 350 acres south of San Antonio. They applied to the Edwards Aquifer Authority for a permit for their existing water well on the property. Under the rules of the EAA, their right to use water from the well depended on what use they made of the water during the historic period from June 1, 1972 to Mary 31, 1993. The farmers applied for a permit to pump up to 700 acre-feet per year, for irrigation. The EAA granted a permit for only 14 acres, finding that their proof of historic use was not adequate. The farmers then sued, alleging that denial of their permit for 700 acre-feet constituted a taking of their property without compensation. After holding that the farmers did have a "property right" in their groundwater of which they could not be deprived without compensation, the Court remanded the case to the trial court for additional evidence on whether the EAA's regulations did in fact constitute a taking of property for which compensation is due.

This is where the case gets interesting. The court discusses how the trial court, when it gets the case back, should decide whether the farmers are entitled to compensation. Relying on a US Supreme Court case, Penn Central Transp. Co. v. New York City, the court adopted a test of "reasonableness": the trial court must consider "the economic impact of the regulation on the claimant and, particularly, the extent to which the regulation has interfered with distinct investment-backed expectations"; and the "'character of the government action' -- ... whether it amounts to a physical invasion or instead merely affects property interests through 'some public program adjusting the benefits and burdens of economic life to promote the common good.'" Considering these factors, the court must decide whether the economic impact of the regulation on the farmers, considering the promotion of the common good resulting from the regulation of groundwater imposed by the EAA, rises to the level of a "taking" of private property for public use. This in my opinion does not give the trial court much to go on. It is a pretty subjective test and will depend on particular facts. The Supreme Court remanded the case to the trial court to further develop those facts.

So what does this mean for Texas landowners and groundwater districts? Perhaps more litigation. Landowners unhappy with decisions made by their local water district may sue claiming that the district has "taken" their water rights. But, as can be seen by the Day case, such a battle is not to be taken on lightly -- in fact, Mr. Day died before the decision was issued -- and will be expensive. And there is the possibility that an unsuccessful claimant would have to reimburse the water district's legal fees. Most water districts have very limited budgets and so will be reluctant to fight landowners' inverse condemnation suits. As a result, they may be more cautious in how they draft and enforce their regulations.

All in all, the case is an important, but not surprising, milestone in the continuing development of groundwater rights law in Texas.


February 17, 2012

Texas Debate over Pipeline Condemnation Rights Now Affecting Keystone Pipeline

Because of the Texas Supreme Court's recent opinion in Texas Rice Land Partners v. Denbury Pipeline, Texas landowners across the state are questioning the right of pipeline companies to exercise the right of eminent domain to condemn easements over their land, including the right of Keystone Pipeline to condemn easements for its pipeline from Canada and through East Texas to the Texas Gulf Coast.

In the Denbury case, the Supreme Court held that a pipeline does not acquire condemnation authority merely by obtaining a permit from the Railroad Commission and subjecting itself to that agency's jurisdiction as a common carrier. The Commission makes no determination whether the intended use of the pipeline is in fact "public." The court then held that in order for a pipeline to serve a public purpose and thus have condemnation power, "a reasonable probability must exist, at or before the time common-carrier status is challenged, that the pipeline will serve the public by transporting gas for customers who will either retain ownership of their gas or sell it to parties other than the carrier." Once a landowner challenges its status as a common carrier, "the burden falls upon the pipeline company to establish its common-carrier bona fides if it wishes to exercise the power of eminent domain."  The court also held that one affiliated company transporting gas solely for the benefit of another affiliate is not a public use of the pipeline. The court said that the question of whether the pipeline is dedicated to a "public use" is ultimately a judicial question.

The court's opinion has caused a firestorm in the pipeline industry, which claims that the case will halt construction of pipelines across the state. Denbury has asked the court to re-hear the case, and at least sixteen amicus briefs have been filed. One of the most interesting is from ETC NGL Transport LLC, which is in the process of condemning a 125-mile pipeline route to transport natural gas liquids from the Eagle Ford shale to facilites in Mont Belvieu, Texas. ETC claims that a county court at law in Harris County has enjoined ETC from "taking possession of the easement [that ETC has condemned] based on an implied finding that ETC is not a common carrier." ETC claims that, "due to this Court's Denbury opinion, landowners were able to convince a county court at law that ETC, which is clearly a common carrier, is not a common carrier."

Denbury is also being cited in an attempt to halt condemnation proceedings for the Keystone XL pipeline in East Texas. Notwithstanding President Obama's refusal to approve the project, Keystone is apparently continuing with its acquisition of right-of-way in East Texas. "We don't need a presidential permit in order for us to obtain the easements that we need for the right of way for this project," said TransCanada spokesman Terry Cunha.

Keystone PL route.jpg


One landowner group has found at least 89 condemnation suits filed by Keystone in Texas. A landowner in Lamar County, Julia Trigg Crawford, got a restraining order halting any further proceedings on her property until Keystone proved its right to condemn her property. "I'm just an angry steward of the land," Crawford said. "A foreign-owned, for-profit, nonpermitted pipeline has taken a Texan's land. Doesn't sound right, does it?" Watch Ms. Crawford discussing her case here. It is unclear whether the Texas Supreme Court would agree that Keystone's activities in transporting Canadian Crude to the Texas Gulf Coast would qualify it as a "common carrier."


February 6, 2012

Water 101

Texas is in the middle of one of the most severe droughts in recorded history. The population of the state is growing rapidly, and projections are that such growth will continue. Much of Texas is arid semi-desert, with limited rainfall in normal years. Will water become the limiting factor in Texas' growth?

With water so much on everyone's minds, I thought it would be a good idea to review some basic facts about water. The following information is from a presentation made by Tom Mason, former General Manager of the Lower Colorado River Authority, who is now a shareholder at my firm, Graves Dougherty Hearon & Moody.

Water on earth:

-- 97% is in the oceans

-- 3% is fresh water

-- 69% of fresh water is ice - glaciers and icecaps

-- 30% of fresh water is groundwater

-- .3% (three tenths of one percent) of the world's fresh water is contained in rivers and lakes

Last month, Texas' water planning agency, the Texas Water Development Board, published Texas' 2012 Water Plan. This plan was developed through a complex planning process involving 16 regional planning groups. The plan lists 562 recommended water supply projects and strategies to meet the State's expected water demands for the next 50 years. Estimated costs of those projects: $53 billion.

Most significant aspects of the Texas Water Plan:

Conservation. Twenty-five percent of the "new water" proposed by the plan is by conserving existing supplies. About 2/3 of that conservation is from agriculture, most of the rest municipal. Conservation is possible: San Antonio has reduced per capita water consumption by more than 40% over the last 26 years  -- in part because a federal court ordered the city to limit withdrawals from the Edwards Aquifer due to environmental concerns. San Antonio engaged in educaton compaigns, new water pricing (the more you use the higher your rate), low flow toilets, repairs of leaky pipes, outdoor water restrictions. Farmers conserve by laser leveling of fields, changes in crops, more efficient irrigation equipment.

New Reservoirs. Texas' water plan proposes that 17% of "new water" supplies will come from new reservoirs. But there are not many good reservoir sites left in Texas. New dams are very expensive, hard to permit, and few federal dollars are available for such projects. Landowners resist use of eminent domain for reservoirs. Most of the new reservoirs proposed are "off-channel" reservoirs, which will capture heavy flood flows in very large ponds and release them when needed.

Groundwater. 9% of new water supplies are projected to come from development of groundwater resources. About 60% of all water use in Texas now comes from groundwater. Regulation of groundwater development in Texas is handled by groundwater districts. There are now some 96 such districts, and each has its local governing board and sets its own rules. Many districts are underfunded and understaffed. There is now great uncertainty over the powers and limits of groundwater regulation that these districts can impose. With such decentralized management and legal uncertainty, it is difficult to predict how groundwater will meet Texas' future water supply needs.

Water Reuse. The water plan derives 10% of its "new water" for Texas' future from reusing treated sewage effluent. Again, the increased use of treated effluent has caused legal uncertainty: who owns water once it has been treated for reuse?

Desalination. 3.5% of "new water" in the Texas Water Plan is from desalination. The cost of water from desalination is now 2 to 7 times more than river water or groundwater.

Water is a big energy user. The State of California uses almost 20% of its total energy production to treat and move water. The City of Austin's water utility is the single largest customer of the City's electric utility. Energy production is also one of the largest water users, although much of the water used for electric generation is returned to rivers and streams after use.

Water and energy remain two of the biggest challenges for Texas, our nation and the world.

January 31, 2012

Texas Wesleyan Law Review Energy Symposium March 29-30

The law school at Texas Wesleyan is hosting a two-day conference on oil and gas law that is packed with good speakers and very inexpensive - $140 for both days.

TWU 2012 Energy Symposium.pdf

There is a lot on the program about the Marcellus Shale. To see the program, go here: 


January 27, 2012

Texas Railroad Commission Proposes Rules for Penalty Assessments

The Texas Railroad Commission this week approved publication of proposed rules establishing guidelines for admistrative penalties for violations of Commission rules related to pipeline safety, LP gas, CNG and LNG safety, oil and gas operations, and underground damage prevention. The proposed rules will be published February 10, and the comment period ends at noon on Monday, March 12. I encourage anyone who is interested in how the Commission enforces its rules to submit comments. To submit comments online, go to


and look for proposed rule 3.107.

The RRC was reviewed by the Sunset Commission in the last legislative session. The Sunset Commission report criticized the RRC for not assessing enough fines. Among the Sunset Commission's findings:

- RRC inspectors conducted more than 128,000 inspections in FY 2009, finding more than 80,000 violations. The field staff forwarded less than 4 percent of those violations to the central office for enforcement action. (In contrast, the TCEQ forwarded about 20 percent of its more than 11,000 violations for enforcement action in the same year.) The RRC issued 379 penalties, assessing more than $2 million in fines.

- In FY 2009, the RRC found more than 18,000 water protection violations. it took enforcement action on less than 1 percent of those violations, about 150.

- The RRC received 681 complaints related to oil and gas production in FY 2009, and found 1,997 violations based on those complaints. But those complaints resulted in only 91 enforcement actions.

The report concludes that the RRC does not make enough use of penalties for violations: "The efficient and fair use of penalties plays a key role in deterring and punishing violators, and thus increases compliance. The Commission and its field staff go to great lengths to ensure complaince through monitoring and inspections; however, the Commission takes relatively few enforcement actions, resulting in a lack of deterrence for future non-compliance."

The report notes that complaints of limited enforcement action taken by the RRC are not new. The issue was raised in the 2001 Sunset review of the RRC. The report notes that oil and gas drilling has moved into urban areas and is having greater potential impact on underground water resources, which will result in greater scrutiny for the industry and RRC enforcement. "A lack of consistent enforcement can contribute to a public perception that the Commission is not willing to take strong enforcement action."

The report also criticized the RRC for not adequately tracking violations, so that it is unable to determine when repeat violators deserve harsher penalties.

To force the RRC to increase its enforcement activities, the report recommended that

    • The RRC be required to develop, by rule, an enforcement policy to guide staff in evaluating and ranking violations.
    • The RRC be required to deveop and adopt a rule establishing penalty guidelines, assigning penalties to different violations based on their risk and severity.
    • Hearings on enforcement actions should be conducted before the State's independent State Office of Admistrative Hearings, rather than before administrative law judges that are employees of the RRC.
    • The RRC be directed to establish a method of tracking violations and enforcement actions and develop a clear and consistent method for analyzing violation data and trends.
    • The RRC be directed to publish additional complaint and enforcement data on its website.

The Legislature did not act on any of the Sunset Commission's recommendations; instead, it postponed any action on the recommendations to the next legislative session.

The proposed rules now being published are in response to the Sunset Commission's proposals. Notwithstanding the Sunset Commission's criticism that the RRC does not make enough use of penalties as a deterrent to violations, however, the proposed rules provide that the RRC Commision's policy on violations is unchanged. It says that the proposed guidelines are

a formal restatement of the penalty guidlines that have been used for many years. Significantly, the rule expressly states that the Commission favors a compliance-based approach to enforcement, with safety and environmental protection being the favored outcomes of any enforcement action. Encouraging operators to take appropriate voluntary corrective and future protective actions once a violation has occurred is an effective component of the enforcement process. Deterrence of violations through penalty assessments is also a necessary and effective component of the enforcement process.

The RRC's "compliance-based approach to enforcement" in practice means that the RRC does not fine an operator when a violation has occurred, as long as the operator cooperates in correcting the violation. In my experience, this means that operators don't have to worry about being fined because the RRC will simply notify them of the violation and they can then fix the problem. The proposed rules ignore the Sunset Commission's recommendation that the RRC increase its use of penalty assessments as a deterrent to violations, thus increasing compliance.

January 27, 2012

NASA on Global Warming

NASA has prepared a report on the rise of global temperatures that contains a great time-lapse view of global temperatures over time. You can view it here:




January 26, 2012

EIA Annual Energy Outlook 2012

The Energy Information Administration has issued its annual energy projections.


Domestic crude oil production is expected to grow by more than 20 percent over the coming decade: Domestic crude oil production increased from 5.1 million barrels per day in 2007 to 5.5 million barrels per day in 2010. Over the next 10 years, continued development of tight oil combined with the development of offshore Gulf of Mexico resources are projected to push domestic crude oil production to 6.7 million barrels per day in 2020, a level not seen since 1994.

With modest economic growth, increased efficiency, growing domestic production, and continued adoption of nonpetroleum liquids, net petroleum imports make up a smaller share of total liquids consumption: U.S. dependence on imported petroleum liquids declines in the AEO2012 Reference case, primarily as a result of growth in domestic oil production of over 1 million barrels per day by 2020, an increase in biofuel use of over 1 million barrels per day crude oil equivalent by 2024, and modest growth in transportation sector demand through 2035. Net petroleum imports as a share of total U.S. liquid fuels consumed drop from 49 percent in 2010 to 38 percent in 2020 and 36 percent in 2035 in AEO2012.

U.S. production of natural gas is expected to exceed consumption early in the next decade: The United States is projected to become a net exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in 2016, a net pipeline exporter in 2025, and an overall net exporter of natural gas in 2021. The outlook reflects increased use of LNG in markets outside of North America, strong domestic natural gas production, reduced pipeline imports and increased pipeline exports, and relatively low natural gas prices in the United States compared to other global markets.

Use of renewable fuels and natural gas for electric power generation rises: The natural gas share of electric power generation increases from 24 percent in 2010 to 27 percent in 2035, and the renewables share grows from 10 percent to 16 percent over the same period. In recent years, the U.S. electric power sector's historical reliance on coal-fired power plants has begun to decline. Over the next 25 years, the projected coal share of overall electricity generation falls to 39 percent, well below the 49-percent share seen as recently as 2007, because of slow growth in electricity demand, continued competition from natural gas and renewable plants, and the need to comply with new environmental regulations.

Total U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions remain below their 2005 level through 2035: Energy-related CO2 emissions grow by 3 percent from 2010 to 2035, reaching 5,806 million metric tons in 2035. They are more than 7 percent below their 2005 level in 2020 and do not return to the 2005 level of 5,996 million metric tons by the end of the projection period. Emissions per capita fall by an average of 1 percent per year from 2005 to 2035, as growth in demand for transportation fuels is moderated by higher energy prices and Federal fuel economy standards. Proposed fuel economy standards covering model years 2017 through 2025 that are not included in the Reference case would further reduce projected energy use and emissions. Electricity-related emissions are tempered by appliance and lighting efficiency standards, State renewable portfolio standard requirements, competitive natural gas prices that dampen coal use by electric generators, and implementation of the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule.


January 25, 2012

Gas Price Drop In the News

Natural Gas Glut.jpg

Natural gas prices are much in the news. Prices have fallen precipitously in the past few weeks. Natural gas futures have fallen 35% in the past year. Warm weather this winter has created a gas glut. In his state of the union address, President Obama said the US now has 100 years of natural gas supply and touted gas as the energy future. Analysts are predicting that prices will continue to fall. Predictions are that natural gas storage capacity will be tested this year.




Fallout from lower gas prices:

Exploration companies are moving to oil plays and drilling only those gas wells necessary to hold acreage. In many plays, such as the liquids-rich portion of the Eagle Ford, lots of gas is being flared in order to get the liquids to market. That gas will eventually go on line, further increasing supply. Producers in some areas can give the gas away and still make money on the liquids. In the Barnett Shale, gas production continues to increase despite the decline in drilling rigs. Barnett shale production set an all-time high of 5.9 Bcf/day in October 2011, with 2/3rds less drilling activity.


Chesapeake, the nation's second-largest gas producer, recently announced that it is shutting in as much as one Bcf/d of its production - about 16% of its total -- until prices improve.


Most analysts are revising their price predictions down. But Anadarko predicts that natural gas prices will rise as soon as drilling slows.


Electricity prices are falling - good for consumers, not so good for power producers. Prices of fertilizer and plastics are also falling. More electric power plants are switching from coal to gas, and coal plants on the drawing board are being reconsidered. Over the past decade, electricity from gas-fired plants has increased by 50 percent, while coal-fired electric generation has declined. Gas-fired power plants are cheaper to build and easier to get permitted. They are also easier to turn on and off, as electricity demand fluctuates. The power industry is beginning to have some confidence in the domestic gas supply. Export of excess supplies of U.S. natural gas are being discussed and planned.


Low gas prices have dampened enthusiasm for nuclear power plants and generation from wind and solar. The cost, including construction, to generate one megawatt hour of gas-fueled electricity is now less than that for coal, wind and solar, according to Bloomberg.


But Energy Secretary Steven Chu says that the alternative energy industry can benefit from low gas prices. Because of gas generating plants' ability to "swing" in output, it should be easier for wind and solar generation to sell into the market when they are able to provide generating capacity.


Cheap gas has caused owners of a methanol plant in Chile to consider moving a methanol plant to Louisiana. Natural gas is the feedstock for methanol.


To take advantage of low gas prices, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is offering $4.5 million in grants to build natural gas fueling stations, to encourage use of natural gas in the transportation sector.


Meanwhile, the debate over the safety of hydraulic fracturing continues. One report says that state agencies who have traditionally regulated the oil and gas exploration industry are tightening their regulations to avoid a takeover of their responsibilities by the EPA.


And, the debate continues (at least in Ithaca NY) over whether burning natural gas in fact has less of a global warming impact than coal.



January 16, 2012

Industry News

Recent news of interest:

The new Texas law requiring reporting of chemicals in frac fluids becomes effective February 1. The law also requires operators to report the volume of water used. Dr. Dan Hardin, resource planning director of the Texas Water Development Board, projects that in 2020, more than 40 percent of water demand in La Salle County (in the Eagle Ford Shale) will go toward fracing. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/15/us/new-texas-rule-to-unlock-secrets-of-hydraulic-fracturing.html

Last year, Dr. Robert Howarth, a professor at Cornell University, published an article concluding that natural gas causes more global warming per unit of energy created than coal, upsetting the widely published belief that natural gas is a more climate-friendly fuel. Dr. Howarth said that previous studies did not take into account that as much as eight percent of produced natural gas escapes into the atmosphere between the wellhead and its consumption. Now a colleague of Howarth at Cornell has published a study challenging Howarth's fugitive gas estimate. Dr. Lawrence Cathles concludes that gas has one-half to one-third the greenhouse gas footprint of coal.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration said that the average wellhead price for natural gas fell from $4.37 per MMBu in 2010 to $3.98 in 2011, the lowest since 2002. http://fuelfix.com/blog/2012/01/10/natural-gas-production-drives-price-down/ Cheap natural gas is making it hard for wind and solar projects to compete. http://blogs.desmoinesregister.com/dmr/index.php/2012/01/05/cheap-gas-a-threat-to-renewables/http://www.npr.org/2012/01/05/144526652/solar-panels-compete-with-cheap-natural-gas 

With low gas prices and high oil prices, rigs continued to move toward shale plays:


Baker Hughes Rig Count.jpg



NGI's shale rig count.jpg


2011 saw a record $86 billion in 2011 U.S. oil and gas upstream deals, up 15% from 2010 -- a year that was itself a record. Top deals in 2011: BHP Billiton's acquistion of Petrohawk, $15.1 billion; Kinder Morgan's acquisition of El Paso Corp, $7.2 billion; BHP Billiton's acquisition of Chesapeake's Fayeteville Shale properties, $4.75 billion; Statoil's acquisition of Brigham Exploration, $4.7 billion; Marathon's acquistion of Hilcorp Marcellus Shale interests for $3.5 billion. All of these deals were driven by shale plays. China's Sinopec oil company recently announced that it will pay $2.2 billion for a one-third stake in Devon Energy's plays in five shales in Mississippi, Colorado, Ohio, and Michigan. Oil & Gas Journal estimated that E&P spending will rise 9.3% this year to a record $595 billion.

In New York, the four-month comment period is closing on regulations proposed by the Department of Environmental Conservation for fracing. The DEC received more than 20,800 comments, a record. State Democratic leaders called on the governor to withdraw the proposed regulations and for a permanent ban on fracing. Industry lobbyists called the proposed regs excessively restrictive, inequitable and unjustified. The Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York claimed that the rules would render half of the desirable drilling parcels unuseable. Environmental groups are divided. The Sierra Club,the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Nature Conservancy have been working with regulators and the industry to come up with workable regulations, seeing natural gas as a cleaner "bridge fuel" for transition to renewable energy sources. Other local environmental groups are opposed to any regulations that would allow development of the Marcellus in New York. Clair Sandberg, a founder of Frack Action, called the cooperation between national environmental industry groups and industry a "marriage of convenience." "It was too daunting to try to take on coal and gas at the same time. Now they find themselves with a mutiny on their hands."

Reports continue to surface in Pennsylvania of methane contamination of water wells allegedly caused by fracing. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection cited Cabot (again) for contaminating three water wells in Lenox Township, citing inadequate casing. DEP is also investigating methane contamination in wells in Wyoming County, Pa. operated by Chief Oil & Gas. A Chief spokesman said that the levels of methane in the water matched levels found in the water before the wells were drilled.


December 30, 2011

Year in Review

I started writing this blog in February 2009. This is my 136th post. It's been fun. I had no idea I could find enough topics to write about, but material has not been a problem. A lot has changed in the oil and gas industry in the last three years. The development of unconventional shale plays. The BP oil spill in the Gulf. Falling gas prices. Rising oil prices. The "fracing controversy."

All of this news pales in comparison to my personal year-end tragedy: My secretary of 27 years is retiring.

I have looked back on my posts from the last year, and here are some parting thoughts for 2011:

Range Resources' fight with landowners in Parker County over alleged contamination of groundwater continues. The fight began in 2010 when the EPA issued an "emergency order" against Range, alleging that its Barnett Shale wells had charged landowners' groundwater supply with methane. Range has fought back fiercely. It appealed the EPA's order to the 5th Circuit court of appeals, and it called a Railroad Commission hearing, at which it presented extensive evidence showing that its wells were not the source of the methane in the landowners' water. The EPA and the landowners declined to participate in that hearing. Instead, the EPA filed suit in federal court to enforce its order. That court has stayed EPA's action until the 5th Circuit issues its opinion. The landowners also brought suit against Range in state court. Range filed a counterclaim, also suing the landowners' consultant Alisa Rich, alleging a conspiracy between the landowners, Rich and the EPA, and seeking damages for civil conspiracy and defamation.

Range's fight is one chapter in the larger controversy over hydraulic fracturing that continues to occupy the media. Most recently, the EPA issued a report concluding, after extensive study and testing of groundwater around Pavillion, Wyoming, that fracing is "likely" the cause of contaminated local water supplies. Every major media outlet picked up the story. Just Google Pavillion Wyoming to see the media frenzy. Encana, an operator in the Pavillion field, called for an independent review of the EP's findings and labelled the agency's report "irresponsible." The American Petroleum Institute and Wyoming regulators have also questioned the study's scientific soundness.

The EPA is continuing with its ponderous design of a study of fracing, mandated by Congress. Results of its study are not expected until 2013. The State of New York, which has imposed a moratorium on fracing, issued a draft environmental impact statement that contains a remarkably thorough study of alleged incidents of groundwater contamination and detailed recommendations of best practices to reduce risks to groundwater. Major studies have been done by several universities, including Duke and MIT, and the University of Texas is proposing its own study. The Department of Energy appointed an advisory panel to study the issue.

Meanwhile, the media continues its frenzied coverage of the "fracing controversy." A so-called documentary on the issue, Gasland, was even nominated for an Oscar.

The Texas Leglisature passed legislation requiring oil companies to post on the internet the chemical content of their frac fluid. The RRC has proposed rules implementing the new law. Similar legislation has been passed or is pending in other states.

The EPA has also issued proposed regulations to reduce emissions of contaminants into the air at all oil and gas facility sites, viewed by the industry as an attempt by EPA to extend is regulation of the industry.

The huge increase in gas supplies resulting from the shale boom has cause gas prices to decline further and companies to shift their exploration budgets to oil shale plays, including the Eagle Ford and the Barnett Shale oil "window" in Texas and the Bakken in North Dakota. Rigs drilling gas wells in Texas declined from 941 to 820 this year, and rigs drilling oil wells increased from 756 to 1,196. There are now 240 rigs drilling in the Eagle Ford alone. Meanwhile, the gas price has dropped to around $3.00/mmBtu, whereas the oil price has moved between $85 and $100/bbl.

The Texas Supreme Court issued several opinions of importance to royalty owners this year: In Shell v. Ross, BP v. Marshall, and Samson Lone Star v. Hooksthe court threw out landowners' jury verdicts against oil companies based on statutes of limitation. In FPL Farming v. Environmental Processing Systems, the court held that injection well operators could be held liable for subsurface trespass.  In Leslie v. Veteran's Land Board, the court appeared to reverse its prior rulings that the holder of executive rights has no duty to lease.  And in Texas Rice Land Partners v. Denbury Green Pipeline, the court said that pipeline companies must prove that they are in fact common carriers in order to exercise condemnation powers.

Meanwhile, oil companies keep leasing and drilling. The demand for energy will not soon abate. A happy new year to all.


December 20, 2011

Demand for Groundwater in the Eagle Ford Shale

The Wall Street Journal published a front-page article in its December 6 edition, "Oil's Growing Thirst for Water," that highlights issues with the oil and gas industry's demand for water in the Eagle Ford and other shale plays. The article quotes Darrell Brownlow, a hydrologist and geochemist and a landowner in South Texas about whom I have written previously. The WSJ article highlights the coming conflict between the oil and gas industry's demand for water and the growing demands on groundwater in Texas.

According to Dr. Brownlow, it makes simple economic sense to use groundwater as a resource for oil and gas exploration: The WSJ says: "Mr. Brownlow ... says it takes 407 million gallons to irrigate 640 acres (one square mile) and grow abaout $200,000 worth of corn on the arid land. The same amount of water, he says, could be used to frack enough wells to generate $2.5 billion worth of oil. 'No water, no frack, no wealth,' says Mr. Brownlow, who has leased his cattle ranch for oil exploration."

Most of the Eagle Ford lies above the Carrizo aquifer, which stretches from Webb County on the Rio Grande River up through Fayette County. Dr. Brownlow, a hydrologist, concludes that there is plenty of water in the Carrizo, in most places, to meet the demands for frac water. His estimates:

  • There are about 6 million acres in the Eagle Ford play, and a possible 20,000 oil and gas wells (one well per 300 acres).
  • An average frac job uses 15 acre-feet of water (4,887,765 gallons, or 115,375.5 42-gallon barrels).
  • So, the frac jobs on those 20,000 wells would use about 300,000 acre-feet of water over the life of the play.
  • Current withdrawals from the Carrizo Aquifer are about 275,000 acre-feet per year; so the entire demand for frac water from Eagle Ford wells would equal about one year's withdrawal of water from the aquifer.  At a rate of withdrawal of 275,000 acre-feet per year, groundwater management studies estimate that the Carrizo water table will drop an average of 30 to 35 feet by 2060.

Dr. Brownlow says that, if a successful Eagle Ford well makes 300,000 to 400,000 barrels of oil at $80/bbl, the return to the landowner would be $520,000 per acre-foot ($1.60 per gallon). In contrast, the return to a farmer using  the same acre-foot of water to irrigate corn, peanuts or coastal hay would be $500 to $1,000 per acre, or about $250 per acre-foot of irrigation water. "The point here is that using groundwater from the Carrizo for hydraulic fracturing in the Eagle Ford Shale has enormous economic potential for landowners, oil production companies and the entire region. Moreover, from a geologic and water planning perspective, additional impact on the aquifer appears minimal," says Dr. Brownlow.

Below is an analysis of data from the Texas Water Development Board, done by the WSJ:

WSJ TWDB data analysis.jpg

The oil and gas industry uses only 1.6% of the water consumed in the state. But this use is concentrated in areas where drilling activity is located, often in arid portions of the state, and the use is growing rapidly. As can be seen from the above graph of one water well, if your well is the one affected, it is an important issue. And the water used for fracing in the Eagle Ford is not returned to the ecosystem; it either remains in the formation, or if it returns to the surface, is it reinjected into licensed disposal wells.

In Texas, the oil and gas industry is exempted from regulation by local underground water districts, which have authority to permit and regulate withdrawals from underground aquifers. Those water districts are now in the middle of establishing "desired future conditions" for the aquifers within their jurisdiction and rules to assure that withdrawals are regulated so that those desired future conditions are met. Because those water districts have no authority to regulate wells used for oil and gas exploration, they cannot predict or control the effect of industry uses on their future supplies of water.

The issues raised by industry use of groundwater just go to prove the old Texas saying, "Whiskey's for drinkin', water's for fightin'."