A Good Primer on the Shale Gas Revolution

If you have been hearing about “fracking” and want to know what the excitement is about, read Matt Ridley’s recent article documenting the exciting new discoveries of massive amounts of previously inaccessible energy.

What’s that you say? Gas is running out? Have you not heard the news? It’s not. Until five years ago, gas was the fuel everybody thought would run out first, before oil and coal. America was getting so worried even Alan Greenspan told it to start building gas import terminals, which it did. They are now being mothballed, or turned into export terminals.

A chap called George Mitchell turned the gas industry on its head. Using just the right combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) – both well-established technologies — he worked out how to get gas out of shale, where most of it is, rather than just out of (conventional) porous rocks, where it sometimes pools. The Barnett shale in Texas, where Mitchell worked, turned into one of the biggest gas reserves in America. Then the Haynesville shale in Louisiana dwarfed it. The Marcellus shale mainly in Pennsylvania then trumped that with a barely believable 500 trillion cubic feet of gas, as big as any oil field ever found, on the doorstep of the biggest market in the world.

A note on units. Figures in gas are usually given in cubic feet, which can be confusing. If you want to understand how much energy we’re talking about here, just take any number of cubic feet of gas and divide by 5600 to determine how many barrels of oil that’s equivalent to. And if you like dealing in gallons instead of barrels, just multiply by 42.

So, the estimated 500 trillion cubic feet of gas at Marcellus is the equivalent of 90 billion barrels of oil, or 3.75 trillion gallons of oil! That’s 1/3 of Saudi Arabia’s current oil reserves–just in one formation.

Of course, we must qualify that estimating future energy output is an inexact science. Still, the newness of the industry and the scale of the finds are cause for incredible excitement. Now we just have to remove the political obstacles getting in the gas industry’s way.