Controversial estimates of potentially enormous new energy reserves highlighted by energy company strategists have sparked a wave of optimistic forecasts for fossil fuel development.
Natural gas from shale will soon cease to be considered “unconventional”, said vice-president and chief economist of industry group America’s Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA) Sara Banaszak.
“In the next 5-10 years we’ll be done with the word ‘unconventional’,” Banaszak said at the US Association for Energy Economics conference in Washington, DC on 11 October.
“We’re very much at the very, very, very beginning of the revolution, and we don’t even see where this is going yet.
“It won’t make sense to talk about unconventional,” Banaszak said. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) has forecast that shale gas’ share of US natural gas supply will rise to 46% in 2035 from 14% in 2009. “Even today it’s already, by some estimates, between 20% and 28% of the natural gas that’s produced in the United States,” Banaszak said.
The Novelty Of Shale Remains
Despite rapid development of the unconventional gas sector in the US, shale as a viable source of gas is still a relatively recent phenomenon. Both the ultimate volume of recoverable reserves, and their impact on domestic and global markets, remain to be seen.
Estimates of natural gas resources available in the United States has risen dramatically in recent years, and upward revisions continue. EIA estimates of potential shale gas resources in the US more than doubled in the agency’s 2011 Annual Energy Outlook from the year before, to 862 trillion cubic feet.
Banaszak compared these rising estimates to previous upward revisions in areas like the deepwater US Gulf of Mexico and Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay. “There’s definitely a pattern, as the industry operates in a new resource area, we learn more about it, we learn to understand it better, and estimates often change,” Banaszak said.
“We’re very much at the very, very, very beginning of the revolution, and we don’t even see where this is going yet. Any idea you have about where this is headed is probably still not fully informed, because we’re just still learning,” said Banaszak.
Unearthing Shale Liquids
The same trends of rising production volumes and reserve estimates may be emerging in liquids-rich onshore unconventional fields.
“It is an area where a lot of progress is being made,” EIA deputy administrator Howard Gruenspecht told Breaking Energy.
Gruenspecht highlighted the Bakken Shale, which spans parts of North Dakota, Montana, and Saskatchewan in Canada, and the Eagle Ford in Texas, as among the most prominent of US onshore oil plays. He also noted prospects for the Utica Shale, which spans parts of the US midwest and northeast, as well as Quebec.
The Utica “has not provided significant production growth yet, but there is certainly a lot of talk that this will be a liquids-heavy resource,” Gruenspecht said.
A study by the National Petroleum Council, an advisory group that represents oil and gas industry views, suggested that at the high end of the spectrum, tight “shale” liquids plays in the US and Canada could hold recoverable resource potential of 10-20 billion barrels, and future production may exceed 1 million barrels per day.
But forecasting with any accuracy is as difficult for unconventional liquids as it has been for unconventional natural gas. “It’s very early days”, said president of consultancy Strategic Energy & Economic Research (SEER) Michael Lynch.
The large shale liquids deposits in the US — which Lynch said number “at least a dozen” — could collectively hold 100 billion barrels of oil in place, with around 1-3% recoverable. Even at low recovery rates, with such a large resource base, “1% means 1 billion barrels”, Lynch said. He suggested that each deposit could add 50,000 barrels per day each year once equipment and personnel are available.
And unconventional onshore oil reserve estimates may rise substantially as new discoveries are made and producers hone techniques to extract liquids from tight rock. “You’re going to get more recovery per well, lower costs, quicker times, and so forth”, Lynch said.
“Tight Race” Between Onshore and Offshore
Tapping oil and liquids from unconventional formations has already begun to impact US oil production, which rose in 2009 and 2010 after declining steadily since the mid-1980’s. But other sources of output, such as the deepwater Gulf of Mexico, may be equally important to future domestic production growth.
Oil production in North Dakota has risen sharply in recent years, recently surpassing 400,000 barrels per day, thanks in large part to the Bakken Shale. But “while the trend in North Dakota and the unconventional resources is certainly worthy of note, it does not replace the offshore Gulf, particularly the deepwater,” Gruenspecht told Breaking Energy.
US offshore crude production from the Gulf of Mexico averaged 1.6 million barrels per day in 2010, accounting for almost one-third of total US oil production, according to the EIA. “We’re talking in North Dakota about production that’s well less than a third of the federal Gulf of Mexico production,” said Gruenspecht.
The NPC study lists potential recoverable oil resources in the US Gulf of Mexico at the high end of the range at 40-60 billion barrels — three-to-four times its estimates for unconventional “tight oil”. According to the NPC, production from the Gulf could rise to 3 million barrels per day in the near- to medium-term if discovered reservoirs yield commercial volumes and drilling returns to levels of activity seen prior to the 2010 oil spill from the Macondo well.
But Lynch foresees a “tight race” between production growth from US unconventional onshore plays and the deepwater Gulf of Mexico.
For shale liquids, “it seems like there’s a lot of potential, and the obstacles are relatively few”, Lynch said. Such obstacles could include new regulations that limit the use of hydraulic fracturing, or procuring sufficient hydraulic fracturing equipment to drill large numbers of wells.
In the deepwater drilling areas, companies’ push into new areas has the potential to unearth supergiant fields. “When you start talking about billion-barrel fields, that’s a lot of oil. And the implication is that if there’s one billion-barrel field, there are probably a lot more 400 million barrel fields,” he said.