Dyer debunks some long-standing energy myths

These enthusiastic forecasts are generally accompanied by sweeping predictions about geopolitics that are equally misleading.

Which of the following statements is true?

The United States now has a 100-year supply of natural gas, thanks to the miracle of shale gas. By 2017 it will once again be the world’s biggest oil producer. By 2035 it will be entirely “energy-independent” and free in particular from its reliance on Middle Eastern oil.

These enthusiastic forecasts are generally accompanied by sweeping predictions about geopolitics that are equally misleading. For example, we are assured that the United States, no longer dependent on Arab oil, will break its habit of intervening militarily in the Middle East. But this new era of cheap and plentiful energy from fossil fuels will also result in sky-high greenhouse gas emissions and runaway global warming.

These statements are all untrue, since they are based on quite mistaken assumptions. The original error, on which most of the others are based, is the belief that “fracking” — hydraulic fracturing of underground formations of shale rock to release the gas trapped within them — has fundamentally transformed the energy situation of the United States.

Production of shale gas has soared in the United States in the past 10 years but it is only compensating for the decline in conventional gas production in the same period. Moreover, while the operators’ calculations assume a 40-year productive lifetime for the average shale gas well, the real number is turning out to be around five to seven years.

That means that in the older shale plays they have to drill like crazy just to maintain current production — and since drilling is very expensive, they aren’t making a profit. As Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson told a private meeting four months ago: “We’re making no money. It’s all in the red.”

They are hoping to make a profit once the gas price recovers but it’s clear that shale gas is no miracle that will provide ultra- cheap fossil fuel for the next 100 years.

And the United States will still be importing a large proportion of its oil in 2035. At the peak of U.S. oil production, in 1970, it produced 10.6 million barrels per day. It currently produces 9.6 million barrels per day, and consumes 21 million bpd.

It is preposterous to argue that it can close that gap by coming up with another 11 million bpd of unconventional oil at an economically viable price. And the whole Middle Eastern business is a red herring, because the  United States does not depend heavily on Middle Eastern oil.

Most US oil imports come from the Western hemisphere or from Africa. Only 15 per cent of its oil comes from Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait, and virtually none from elsewhere in the Gulf. Whatever America’s various wars in the region may have been about, they were not about “security of oil supply.”

Which leaves the business about shale gas and oil pushing the world’s greenhouse gas emissions over the top. They can’t do that, because we are already over the top. We need only continue on our present course, and we will be irrevocably committed to 2 degrees C of warming (3.5 degrees F) within 10 years. Within 25 years we will be committed to +4 degrees C (7 degrees F).

So why are we fed a daily diet of misinformation about energy in general and shale gas in particular? Because a lot of people have something to sell.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.