By Martin Wolf

The world is in the midst of a natural gas revolution. Even the sober International Energy Agency refers to a scenario it calls a “golden age of gas”. If such optimism proves right, the implications would not only be far greater than those of the eurozone’s painful dissolution, but would also be economically positive. Never forget that ours is a civilisation built on cheap supplies of commercial energy. The economic rise of emerging countries is bound to make the demand for commercial energy increase dramatically in the decades ahead. Gas matters.

This revolution has a name: “hydraulic fracturing”, colloquially known as “hydrofracking” or just “fracking”. As is true of nearly all of the technological revolutions of the past century, this one also originated in the US. The US Energy Information Administration explains that “[t]he use of horizontal drilling in conjunction with hydraulic fracturing has greatly expanded the ability of producers to produce natural gas from low permeability geologic formations, particularly shale formations.”*

While some innovations date to the 1970s, the EIA notes that “the advent of large-scale shale gas production did not occur until Mitchell Energy and Development Corporation experimented during the 1980s and 1990s to make deep shale gas production a commercial reality in the Barnett Shale in North-Central Texas.” But, by now, it adds, “[t]he development of shale gas has become a ‘game changer’ for the US natural gas market.”

The new activity has increased dry shale gas production in the US from 0.39tn cubic feet in 2000 to 4.8tn cubic feet in 2010, or 23 per cent of US dry gas production. Vastly more is to come. The EIA estimates 860tn cubic feet of “technically recoverable” US shale gas against just 273tn cubic feet in today’s “proved reserves”. If this estimate is correct, shale gas on its own would give the US 40 years of gas consumption, at current rates. 

How large are the world’s shale gas reserves? The EIA asked consultants to examine 48 shale gas basins in 32 countries. Their report estimates “technically recoverable” global shale gas resources at 6,600tn cubic feet, roughly equal to today’s proved reserves. The largest identified resources, apart from those of the US, are in China (1,275tn cubic feet), Argentina (774tn), Mexico (681tn) South Africa (485tn), Australia (396tn), Canada (388tn), Libya (290tn), Algeria (231tn), Brazil (226tn), Poland (187tn) and France (180tn). Regions excluded from this analysis include Russia, central Asia, the Middle East, south-east Asia and central Africa. Global potential should be far larger still. Read m0ore…

As published in www.ft.com on February 21, 2012.


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