What the Frack? Scraping the Bottom of the Oil Barrel is Not Good to the Last Drop

- by Mark Robinowitz, PeakChoice.org

The toxic impacts of hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas have been subject to public debates, protests, and lawsuits, among other tactics to stop these dangers. But the other half of the fracking story, which has had much less attention, is the exaggeration of recoverable reserves.


The fracking industry claims shale gas will fuel 100 years worth of USA consumption of “natural” gas. Massive amounts of drilling in the past several years have increased gas production above the 1973 natural gas peak. Gas has significantly increased its share of the electric power grids, lowering coal combustion and helping damper plans for new nuclear reactors.  

One of fracking’s dirty secrets is fracked wells decline far faster than conventional wells. Fracking a well also requires more money, technical talent and resources than conventional wells.  

Two of the three top gas fracking regions in the USA have peaked. Barnett Shale near Fort Worth, Texas has peaked and plateaued. Haynesville in Louisiana and Arkansas has peaked and declined sharply. The largest fracking region -- Marcellus in Pennsylvania -- has not yet peaked and provides nearly a fifth of all USA natural gas. Nationally, about forty percent of natural gas is from fracking.  

Fracking for oil has reversed the decline of USA oil extraction since the 1970 peak. The Bakken shale in North Dakota has fueled wild claims of alleged energy independence and even proposals to export oil to Asia. However, Bakken has not even offset the decline of the Alaska Pipeline, which has dropped three fourths from its 1988 peak and is approaching “low flow” shutdown. Fracking in south Texas has also raised Texan oil production but the state’s peak was still back in 1972 -- a reason huge efforts have been made for offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

Post Carbon Institute has published reports documenting how fracking estimates have been exaggerated. They were vindicated in May of this year when the Department of Energy admitted plans for oil fracking in the Monterey Shale in California had been exaggerated and downsized the estimated resource by ninety-six percent (96%). Post Carbon’s montereyoil.org website has details.  

We are in a paradox at this time of Peak Everything and Climate Chaos. If we keep burning fossil fuels we will continue to wreck the biosphere, but if we suddenly stopped that would wreck civilization, which could accelerate ecological destruction (how many forests would be burned for electricity, for example). Fossil fuels allowed our population to zoom from under a billion to over seven billion today.

Fracking, deep water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and tar sands extraction in Canada have delayed gasoline rationing. We are in the eye of the energy crisis hurricane, perhaps for a few more years.

The Limits to Growth study in 1972 predicted peak resources around the turn of the century, followed by peak pollution as dirtier resources were used as higher quality resources were depleted. Fracking, tar sands, mountaintop removal and other desperate destructions seek to maintain the exponential growth economy now that the easier to extract fossil fuels are in decline.  

Using solar energy for two decades taught me that renewable energy could only run a smaller, steady state economy. Our exponential growth economy requires ever increasing consumption of concentrated resources (fossil fuels are more energy dense than renewables). A solar energy society would require moving beyond growth-and-debt based money.

After fossil fuel we will only have solar power, but that won't replace what we use now. We need to abandon the myth of endless growth on a round, and therefore, finite planet to have a planet on which to live.

Humanity does not face the question of whether to use less fossil fuels to reduce greenhouse gases, since we have reached the limits to energy growth due to geological factors. How we use the remaining fossil fuels as they deplete determines how future generations will live after the fossil fuels are gone. Will we use the second half of the fossil fuels for bigger highways or better trains? Relocalization of food production or more globalization? Resource wars or global cooperation?

Mark Robinowitz is author of “Peak Choice: cooperation or collapse” at PeakChoice.org