Canadian geologist David Hughes has some sober news for the Kool-Aid-drinking boosters of the United States’ newfound eminence in fossil fuel production: it’s going to go bust sooner rather than later.
Working with the Post Carbon Institute, a sustainability think-tank, Hughes meticulously analyzed industry data from 65,000 US shale oil and natural gas wells that use the much-ballyhooed extraction method of hydraulic fracturing, colloquially known as fracking. The process involves drilling horizontally as well as vertically, and then pumping a toxic cocktail of pressurized water, sand, and chemicals deep underground in order to break apart the rock formations that hold deposits of oil and gas.
Hughes found that the production rates at these wells decline, on average, 85 percent over three years.
“Typically, in the first year there may be a 70 percent decline,” Hughes told VICE News. “Second year, maybe 40 percent; third year, 30 percent. So the decline rate is a hyperbolic curve. But nonetheless, by the time you get to three years, you’re talking 80 or 85 percent decline for most of these wells.”
His conclusion calls into question the viability of developing a long-term national energy policy on the assumption that fossil fuel extraction will continue at current levels. Several new natural gas export terminals are under consideration across the country, and the energy industry is pushing for the reversal of a 1970s Congressional ban on crude oil exports. Calls to approve the Keystone XL pipeline and allow for greater transportation of oil and gas over the nation’s rail lines are also based on the revolution in domestic energy production.