Support Provided ByLearn More
Planet EarthPlanet Earth

Fracking Boom Could Start to Collapse in 2020

ByTim De ChantNOVA NextNOVA Next

Receive emails about upcoming NOVA programs and related content, as well as featured reporting about current events through a science lens.

In less than a decade, fracking has redefined the energy industry, boosting waning natural gas production in the United States and fueling talk of the country becoming a significant energy exporter. But according to recent research, the fracking boom may come to an end far sooner many have expected.

The standard forecasts by the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) currently estimate that natural gas from fracking shale the big four formations in the U.S. will continue to grow significantly until 2040, at which point they expect other new “plays” will have come online. Those estimates may be overstated, though. Over the last few years, a team at the University of Texas at Austin has been studying well outputs and geological formations to arrive at their own independent, peer-reviewed forecasts. Their results suggest that output from the big four plays would peak in 2020 and be halved just 10 years later.

Support Provided ByLearn More
Fayetteville Shale Drill Rig
A drill rig taps into the Fayetteville formation in Arkansas

Spatially speaking, the EIA’s forecasting methods are relatively crude, a shortcoming the Texas team aimed to address. Here’s Mason Inman, reporting for Nature News:

The EIA breaks up each shale play by county, calculating an average well productivity for that area. But counties often cover more than 1,000 square kilometres, large enough to hold thousands of horizontal fracked wells. The Texas team, by contrast, splits each play into blocks of one square mile (2.6 square kilometres) — a resolution at least 20 times finer than the EIA’s.

Resolution matters because each play has sweet spots that yield a lot of gas, and large areas where wells are less productive. Companies try to target the sweet spots first, so wells drilled in the future may be less productive than current ones. The EIA’s model so far has assumed that future wells will be at least as productive as past wells in the same county. But this approach, [team member Tad] Patzek argues, “leads to results that are way too optimistic”.

The Marcellus, Barnett, Fayetteville, and Haynesville shale formations in the northeast and southern U.S. produce two-thirds of the country’s shale gas, and confidence in the fracking industry is largely based on their voluminous output. A premature collapse of their production could have chilling effects on fracking plans elsewhere around the world.

Photo credit: Bill Cunningham/USGS