Articles Posted in Unconventional Resources

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There are always nay-sayers who predict that the current boom, whatever it may be, will soon be a bust. Recently, however, some pretty prominent voices have cautioned that all of the rosy predictions about the future of the shale boom, US energy independence, and the continued growth of US oil and gas production are false – a bubble soon to burst.

One of those is J. David Hughes, a geoscientist with the Post-Carbon Institute. He spent 32 years with the Geological Survey of Canada, and coordinated an assessment of Canada’s unconventional natural gas potential. He has authored “Drill, Baby, Drill,” published last year by the Post Carbon Institute and the Energy Policy Forum. It is a pretty comprehensive review of the long-term viability of the shale plays. Some excerpts:

  • “World energy consumption has more than doubled since the energy crises of the 1970s, and more than 80 percent of this is provided by fossil fuels. In the next 24 years world consumption is forecast to grow by a further 44 percent–and U.S. consumption a further seven percent–with fossil fuels continuing to provide around 80 percent of total demand.”
  • “Shale gas production has grown explosively to account for nearly 40 percent of U.S. natural gas production; nevertheless production has been on a plateau since December 2011 –80 percent of shale gas production comes from five plays, several of which are in decline. The very high decline rates of shale gas wells require continuous inputs of capital–estimated at $42 billion per year to drill more than 7,000 wells–in order to maintain production. In comparison, the value of shale gas produced in 2012 was just $32.5 billion.”
  • “Tight oil plays are characterized by high decline rates, and it is estimated that more than 6,000 wells (at a cost of $35 billion annually) are required to maintain production, of which 1,542 wells annually (at a cost of $14 billion) are needed in the Eagle Ford and Bakken plays alone to offset declines. As some shale wells produce substantial amounts of both gas and liquids, taken together shale gas and tight oil require about 8,600 wells per year at a cost of over $48 billion to offset declines. Tight oil production is projected to grow substantially from current levels to a peak in 2017 at 2.3 million barrels per day. At that point, all drilling locations will have been used in the two largest plays (Bakken and Eagle Ford) and production will collapse back to 2012 levels by 2019, and to 0.7 million barrels per day by 2025. In short, tight oil production from these plays will be a bubble of about ten years’ duration.”

Hughes’ report is filled with graphs illustrating production and consumption world-wide and by field. Here is an example:

The Haynesville, Barnett, Fayetteville, and Woodford plays, which collectively produce 68 percent of United States shale gas, are late-middle-aged in terms of the life cycle of shale plays. Unless there is a substantial increase in gas price and a large ramp-up in drilling, these plays will go into terminal decline. The prognosis for the top nine shale plays in the United States, which account for 95 percent of shale gas production, is presented in Table 2.

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Hughes also discusses the two biggest oil shale plays, the Bakken and the Eagle Ford. Together, these fields produce more than 80 percent of tight oil production in the US. “Overall field decline rates are such that 40 percent of production must be replaced annually to maintain production.”

Given the EIA estimate of available well locations, the Bakken, which has produced about half a billion barrels to date, will ultimately produce about 2.8 billion barrels by 2025 (close to the low end of the USGS estimate of 3 billion barrels). Similarly, the Eagle Ford will ultimately produce about 2.23 billion barrels, which is close to the EIA estimate of 2.46 billion barrels. Together these plays may yield a little over 5 billion barrels, which is less than 10 months of U.S. consumption.

Some figures from Hughes’ discussion of the Eagle Ford:

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“The future production profile of the Eagle Ford–assuming a total of 11,406 effective locations, a 40 percent overall field decline, and current rates of drilling with all new wells performing as in 2011–is illustrated in Figure 75. This yields a production profile which rises 34 percent from June 2012 levels to a peak of 0.891 million barrels per day in 2016 as illustrated in Figure 75. At this point, with all well locations drilled, production declines at the overall field decline rate of about 40 percent. The overall field decline may decrease somewhat over time after peak as wells approach terminal decline rates. This also assumes that 70 percent of the wells drilled to date have targeted the oil-rich portion of the
Eagle Ford play. Total oil recovery in this scenario is about 2.23 billion barrels by 2025, which agrees quite well with the EIA’s estimate of 2.46 billion barrels.157 Average well production falls below 10 bbls/d in this scenario by 2021.”

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Hughes’ report provides a wealth of data and puts the “shale boom” in perspective. He may be overly pessimistic, but he certainly makes one think about the world’s unsustainable thirst for hydrocarbons.

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I ran across an article in the New York Times about a new publication, “The Boom,” becoming popular with oil field workers in the Eagle Ford. It’s a good read. And it’s free online. Check out the article in the August publication, “Eagle Ford Shale Takeaways.” It’s a reprint of an article from Drillinginfo, based on Drillinginfo’s analysis of several thousand wells in the Eagle Ford play. One conclusion from that article:

The very best Eagle Ford Shale operators produce 30% to 40% better than the median FOR THE SAME QUALITY OF ROCK, and they produce three times as much as operators at the low end. … The implications for mineral owners in this scenario are obvious. Massive gaps in production naturally lead to large gaps in royalty payments. A 25% royalty lease with an average operator is equivalent to an 18% royalty lease with the best operators.  That same lease with the worst operators is the same as an 8% lease with the best.

 Also check out Texas Eagle Ford Shale Magazine, another digital publication catering to the Eagle Ford play.

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Here are two emerging technologies that could change how we might use natural gas to fuel our cars and electrify our homes and offices.

A company called Redox Power Systems is building a plant in Florida to produce The Cube, a dishwasher-sized system that generates electricity from natural gas using electro-chemical fuel cell technology. 

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With almost no moving parts, The Cube can provide enough electricity to power a gas station or a small grocery store. It also generates heat that can be used to heat a home or business. It’s technology was developed at the University of Maryland. The system also emits carbon dioxide, but according to a review by MIT, its emissions should be lower than those associated with power from the grid. Redox plans to complete a 25-kilowatt prototype and start selling complete systems by the end of this year.

A company named Siluria Technologies is making low-carbon gasoline from natural gas using a catalyst grown from a genetically modified virus. Siluria claims that its gasoline carries half the carbon footprint of gasoline refined from oil, and that it can produce gasoline for about $15 a barrel, not counting the price of the natural gas consumed.  According to Sliuria’s website: “At commercial scale, Siluria’s process will enable refiners and fuel manufacturers to produce transportation fuels that cost considerably less than today’s petroleum-based fuels, while reducing overall emissions, NOx, sulfur and particulate matter. Fuels made with Siluria’s processes are also compatible with existing vehicles, pipelines and other infrastructure and can be integrated into global supply chains.”

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The New York Times reported recently that the number of mobile or “walking” drilling rigs in operation now exceeds the number of conventional rigs, by 650 to 500. “Pad drilling” — the drilling of multiple wells from a single pad site — has now become the norm in unconventional plays, and these walking rigs make drilling from a single pad site more economical and efficient. Moving a rig to a new location now takes a matter of hours instead of days. The new rigs cost up to $20 million. The increased effeciency of these rigs has actually reduced the rig count while increasing the number of wells drilled, and has caused the Energy Information Administration to develop a new rig-efficiency measure.  The combination of walking rigs and multi-well drillsites results in significant reductions in drilling costs. Continental Resources, the largest player in the Bakken, says it now can drill 14 wells from a single pad.

EIA’s new Drilling Productivity Report shows how the new technology has affected production in the major shale plays. Here is its graph for the Eagle Ford:

EIA Eagle Ford Well Efficiency.JPG

Here is an annual comparison for several shale plays:

EIA Well Efficiency.JPG

 

Not necessarily good news for drilling companies, but good news for exploration companies and royalty owners.

 

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StateImpact Texas has published a series of good articles about the growing evidence that the huge quantities of wastewater being injected in the Barnett Shale field are causing earthquakes — some of sufficient intensity to cause significant damages. Lawsuits have been filed in Johnson County to recover for the damage.  StateImpact’s most recent article can be found here. Links to all of StateImpact’s articles on earthquakes caused by oil and gas activity are here.

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I have recently seen articles predicting the end of the shale boom, coming not only from those who have consistently predicted that shale production would never amount to anything, but also from respected sources whose predictions have previously proven accurate. A recent Houston Chronicle article quotes from a paper written by Amy Myers Jaffe, executive director for energy and sustainability at the University of California, Davis, and Mahmoud El-Gamal of Rice University, saying that “The most likely scenario – absent war – is for oil prices to decline significantly.” A significant decline in oil prices would make many if not most wells shale wells now being drilled in the Eagle Ford and Permian areas of Texas uneconomical. Jaffe expects oil prices to decline in the next three to five years. “To hold up prices it would have to be a regime change in several countries that results in lasting civil wars with lots of infrastructure being blown up,” she said.

An article in Business Week says that the break-even price for profitability in the Cline Shale play of the Permian Basin is $96 per barrell; in the Eagle Ford, it’s $78/barrel, and in the Bakken, $84.  Here is one analyst’s prediction of future oil prices:

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Falling fuel demand is a big part of the prediction.  Jaffe believes demand will fall even with continued growth in China and other emerging nations. The average fuel economy for new vehicles in the US is up 4.7 mpg since October 2007. And Americans are driving less.  Lower-priced natural gas will replace some of the oil demand.  From the Energy Information Administration:

US Crude Oil and Energy Consumption.JPG

And, as with natural gas in the latter part of the last decade, US crude oil production and resulting supply are increasing:

Crude Oil Production and Ending Stocks.JPG

EIA has begun publishing a new report, its “Drilling Productivity Report,” focusing on production in the six major shale plays in the US.  The report appears to me to highlight two attributes of shale plays:  first, companies are lowering the cost of drilling and completing wells in these plays, increasing the efficiency of putting new production online; and second, the industry has to continue to drill wells to replace the rapid decline in production from these plays. Here are a couple of the EIA’s charts from its recent analysis of Eagle Ford wells that illustrate these attributes:

Eagle Ford new well production per rig.JPG

This shows that fewer rigs are needed to continue the increase in production from the Eagle Ford.

On the other hand, it takes continuous drilling to replace the decline in existing production:

Eagle Ford change in oil production.JPG

The above chart tells me that, if and when oil prices decline, the growth in oil production from the Eagle Ford will quickly turn into a rapid decline, when rigs leave the play.

 

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