U.S. oil and gas production is indeed up, but at great cost

Robert Bryce, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, suggests that fossil fuels are here to stay (The Herald, Viewpoints, Sept. 7) because “innovation in the oil and gas sector … has resulted in faster and cheaper drilling, which, in turn, has turbocharged the growth in hydrocarbon production.”

Mr. Bryce’s views were shared by most conventional energy analysts until very recently. When I completed my bachelor’s degree in geophysics at Texas A&M University in the early 1990s, none of my geology professors ever mentioned the topic of depletion. Instead the focus of my coursework was on advanced methods of seismology including three-dimensional imaging and horizontal drilling as a means to extract more oil at a lower cost. These methods have indeed been successful in extracting more oil but only at a much higher cost: at the pump and more insidiously to people’s health, the welfare of communities and to our environment.

A Shell Oil geophysicist, M. King Hubbert, was the first to take a serious look at the boom-and-bust cycle of conventional oil extraction for his doctoral thesis in the 1950s. The result of his painstaking survey of thousands of Oklahoma and Texas oil well production data was to observe a bell-shaped curve now known as the Hubbert curve. All extracted resources behave this way.

By the late 1950s Hubbert predicted that U.S. domestic oil production would peak in 1970-71 followed by continuous decline. He was exactly right. The economic hardship America experienced in the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo was a direct result of this reality. Alaskan oil production helped to cushion the drop in domestic production but even Alaskan oil production declined after 1990.

In 1964, Dr. Hubbert predicted that worldwide conventional oil production would peak sometime between 2000 and 2010. He based this prediction on the fact that there is, on average, a 40-year lag between discovery of new oilfields and peak production. Peak discovery of new, easily-developed, large oil fields was in 1965. It now appears that Hubbert was again correct. The two largest producers, Saudi Arabia and Russia, are now in decline.

It is true that hydraulic fracturing and other non-conventional methods of oil production have helped to increase U.S. domestic production by about 25 percent since 2008, but at a huge toll.

First, consider the economics of oil starting a century ago: The energy returned for energy invested was as high as 100 to 1. Today’s conventional wells generate a returned vs. invested ratio of 10 to 1. The return for hydraulically fractured wells are typically 3 to 1 or even 2 to 1. Tar sands oils also have similar ratios. It is for this reason that these methods are profitable only when the price of oil is at least $100 a barrel as it has been since 2008. Even so, we are still importing half our crude oil.

However, the price we pay at the pump for non-conventional oil masks the real cost. A single hydraulically-fractured well consumes 2 million to 8 million gallons of fresh water (source: New York State Department of Environmental Conservation). This translates into 400 to 600 tanker truckloads to develop a well followed by 200 to 300 tanker truckloads of wastewater. Wells are located in pads of up to 20 wells per pad. Overall 38,000 to 172,800 truckloads of liquids can be expected over the life of a pad. Repeated heavy loads destroy roads and bridges. The high-pressure fluids, loaded with organic solvents and detergents, pulverize the boundaries between aquifers and rock, leading to groundwater contamination. Containment ponds for developed (contaminated) fluids also leach into aquifers and rivers.

For the price of short-term fossil fuel gain, we are trading our dwindling stocks of safe drinking water.

Fossil fuels cannot address our energy needs in a way that fosters a bright future. Hydraulic fracturing is no exception and in fact is an extreme example.

Eric Teegarden is chairman of the Snohomish Group, Washington Chapter of the Sierra Club.

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