Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Tina Casey headshot

Fracking's Red Queen Effect Means Even More Drilling

Our friends over at Fuel Fix have chipped in with another warning that the fracking bubble is about to burst, but that won't necessarily mean relief is in sight for communities beset by the negative impacts of fracking. A rapid decline in productivity from shale formations is leading to a rapid increase in the number of new wells as companies attempt to make up for the dropoff in revenue. Fuel Fix calls this the Red Queen effect, after the frenetic character in Alice in Wonderland, and it could lead to tens of thousands of new wells in South Texas alone over the next few years.

The full Red Queen Effect article, by Jennifer Hiller, is well worth a read. It focuses on the Eagle Ford shale formation in Texas, but its lessons can also be applied to the Marcellus Shale region in Appalachia and other shale formations throughout the U.S.

 The Red Queen Effect

For those of you new to the issue, fracking is short for hydrofracturing, an unconventional method of natural gas (and oil) drilling that involves pumping massive amounts of chemical-laden brine into shale formations.

Aside from the obvious environmental hazards, one bottom-line risk is the fact that the typical shale formation depletes far more rapidly than sites for conventional drilling.

The Center for Global Research provides a good rundown of both the environmental and financial issues, and here is the money quote:

Shale Gas, unlike conventional gas, depletes dramatically faster owing to its specific geological location. It diffuses and becomes impossible to extract without the drilling of costly new wells.

With that in mind, let's take a quick look at Hiller's article. She cites an overall 60 percent drop in Eagle Ford gas productivity within the past few years, as exemplified by the experience of the company Petrohawk. That's actually pretty good compared to the industry average, which can get into the 70-80 percent range.

In 2009 a Petrohawk well in McMullen County had initial production of 1.39 million cubic feet (cf) monthly. It skyrocketed to 24 million cf within a year, but is currently down to 8.9 million cf.

Part of the dropoff can be deliberate, as companies "choke" a well to enable it to maintain productivity for a longer period of time. However, all things being equal, rapidly declining productivity in shale formations is inevitable.

According to Hiller's sources, that translates into the need to drill more than 6,000 new wells annually in the U.S.

Fracking and sustainability

The prospect of adding thousands more wells, year after year, highlights the basic problem with the fracking boom. It has been introducing massive amounts of significant industrial activity into rural areas and other non-industrial areas, with little state oversight and practically no federal oversight.

The lack of comprehensive federal regulation has its roots in the notorious "Haliburton loophole" inserted into the federal Clean Water Act in 2005, which as a coincident effect touched off the fracking boom.

As a relatively new phenomenon, the broad impacts of fracking on local communities has yet to be examined in depth, though anecdotal evidence is piling up.

The Obama Administration has been trying to play catch-up by deploying its executive authority through the Environmental Protection Agency. However, without legislative action by Congress, it's been a tough slog. The going has also been slow partly because the Administration's near-term climate management strategy depends on a vigorous U.S. natural industry.

The fracking bubble

Fuel Fix is far from the first to raise warnings about the fracking bubble. Back in June 2012, The New York Times investigated claims about the long-term profitability of fracking wells. Rolling Stone and the Wall Street Journal have also produced in-depth reports on fracking industry profits.

Another bottom-line risk is manifested in a loss of property value in nearby properties without wells, as well as rude surprise for buyers who didn't read the fine print about mineral rights on their property, or who assumed the prospect of activating those right to be small or even nonexistent.

A related issue involves the potential negative impacts of the natural gas lifecycle - storage and transportation as well as drilling - on existing economic activity, as illustrated by the proposed expansion of a gas storage facility in the heart of upstate New York's tourist-friendly wine industry.

All of this underscores the long-term unsustainability of fossil fuel extraction, especially in the context of population growth, water scarcity, and food production issues.

[Image (cropped): Queen of Hearts by Rob Hannay]

Follow me on Twitter and Google+.

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

Read more stories by Tina Casey

More stories from Investment & Markets