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Shale Gas: From Geologic Bubble to Economic Bubble

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Fracking for natural gas is on Coloradans' minds. From landholders to policy makers, it's a pig pile of attention on the environmental effects, which are bad enough when real -- roads ruined by heavy trucks carting waste water, and waste water voided from the hydrologic cycle when stored in disposal wells, seeps from faulty linings of containment pits, methane leaks that make shale gas as climate intensive as coal, and air quality such as Erie's becomes more tainted with hydrocarbons than Houston and Los Angeles, to name just a few.

Unincorporated Boulder County has just entered a moratorium on fracking, plus Erie and the city of Longmont as well. Aurora is crafting its own regulations. It's a patchwork of regulations in the making, amounting to one big "Whoa, Nellie!" to the industry.

And as one driller told me, "involvement by local government is an expeditious way to curtail drilling." It's a big enough impediment to drilling that Rex Tillerson of Exxon Mobil hit the publicity trail last week to weigh in against layers of local regulation.

However, something else that's supportive of the idea to just slow down is an economic backdrop not discussed enough -- the mythical quality of the claim of 100 years of gas, a claim oft-stated by President Obama. On this fossil fuel gold rush we are in the midst of a new bubble, say many researchers and experts.

Imagine the nation creating another large economic bubble after all we've been through.

And that's just what fossil energy researchers such as Dave Hughes of Canada have been claiming about shale gas plays and fracking, pointing out in a 2011 report, "conventional gas wells decline by 25-40 percent in their first year of production, whereas shale gas wells decline at rates such as 63-85 percent."

Due to the costly inputs of capital, energy and water involved in fracking, shale gas is economic only in the most bountiful zones. And if capital was attracted to projects based on extrapolations from the best zones and early production rates, and if companies get caught up in land grabs hoping to profit (which has happened), then companies may need to "carpet bomb" areas with drill rigs to try to keep up production.

This is another kind of pig pile, also known in Hughes' exemplary vernacular as the exploration "treadmill" and "an exercise in creating greater complexity with lower and lower returns." (For a truly deep dive into energy return on energy invested check this out and feel your investor heart go ack!!.)

The Potential Gas Committee (an all-volunteer industry research group related to Colorado School of Mines) has assessments for gas indicating that while "resources" could suffice for 80 years of use, "reserves" may suffice for only about 23. Reserves are areas proven to have gas that can come up in economically and operationally effective ways. It's a difference of a bird in the pen versus several in the wind. It might be nice to have more than 23 firm years of gas now that coal plants are being retired all over the nation due to aging plants, depleting supplies of cheap coal and utilities gunning for supposedly cheap gas.

Ian Urbina of the New York Times has been drilling down through gas industry emails and documents to find an unexpectedly low level of confidence in the gas boom, saying, "There is undoubtedly a vast amount of gas in the formations. The question remains how affordably it can be extracted." His reporting refers to possibly deliberate overstatement of reserves by speculators and of federal and state lawmakers considering drastically increasing subsidies for drilling in the hopes of low-cost energy.

With this going on, any Colorado voter might ask with squinty-eyed suspicion what the heck Governor Hickenlooper was up to when he created and then defended radio ads for gas extraction paid for by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. It's a pie in the sky endorsement that should not come from one elected to represent the whole state who also happens to be a geologist who should know better. Environmental groups have erupted with push back stating that his proclamations of no leaks from fracking is not remotely accurate.

Meanwhile, let's recall that it's called "oil and gas" for a reason. In some formations oil brought up with gas can subsidize and prolong drilling and fatten state coffers. We like the state making revenues in these forlorn TABOR days, but pumping up financial bubbles has a tendency to blow up in everyones' faces -- with Colorado's land, water, climate and energy future in the balance. And as the bubble grows it depletes a resource so precious as a feedstock for chemicals that insiders compare it to gold.

We need to save that gas and slow down this pressure to frack it and burn it, so, let's push right back against the governor and Rex Tillerson and go for local control of fracking. Also, let's blunt our demand for gas by supporting solar thermal technology for heating buildings (see a video about Colorado becoming a global leader in solar thermal development).

Perhaps Colorado should launch a new renewable energy standard for solar thermal to loosen our enslavement to fossil fuels for heating. Lastly, we need to support a renewed push for property assessed clean energy financing (PACE) for retrofitting homes for efficient and clean energy, in a bill created to support the program now happening in Congress (see HR 2599) and by putting in comments with home mortgage regulators who shut down the PACE program.

A version of this post ran in the "Boulder Daily Camera."