If my RSS reader is any guide, most of the press about shale gas has focused on two issues. First, shale gas is in considerable supply, cheap to produce, and burns far cleaner than other fossil fuels. Second, shale gas does not look so hot environmentally, all in. Fracking can pollute ground water (and potable water is our most scarce resource) and releases enough methane to make shale gas as detrimental as coal. Still, it has been treated as the Great Hope for America’s energy woes, a way to turn the US into an exporter, and maybe it will cure cancer too. Obama touted 100 years of shale gas reserves, and manufacturers envision an American revival based on cheap fuel.
The problem is that the good part of this story is largely wrong. Shale gas supplies are overestimated, and it is not as cheap as it has been touted to be. The big reason is that shale gas wells, unlike oil wells, peter out really quickly. The result is that the viability of shale gas as a solution to America’s high energy consumption level is only on an interim basis. Shale gas is more likely to be a stopgap, a 25 year solution rather than a 100 one.
As with the housing bubble, analysts and journalists who understand the economics are giving clear warnings, but they don’t seem to be getting much of an audience. For instance, Jeff Goodell in Rolling Stone wrote in March:
At the same time, scientists began to conclude that America’s reserves of naturalgashave been overhyped. In January, the Energy Department cut its estimate of the amount of gas available in the Marcellus Shale by nearly 70 percent, and a group affiliated with the Colorado School of Mines warns that there may be only 23 years’ worth of economically recoverable gas left nationwide. Even worse, new studies suggest that because of fugitive emissions of methane from wellheads and pipelines, natural gas may actually be no better than coal when it comes to global warming.