drillers

Will LNG Exports Save the Shale Gas Drilling Industry's Profitability? Not So Fast

Last year, a wave of bankruptcies swept the oil and gas drilling industry as oil prices collapsed, leading to layoffs, lost revenues for communities, and turning former boomtown-era mancamps into ghost towns in places like North Dakota's Bakken shale.

Even before oil prices plunged, the price of shale gas was already under siege from a domestic supply glut caused by the shale drilling frenzy. All told, prices dropped from its all-time high of over $15/mcf when the shale boom began in 2005 to $1.57/mcf — the lowest levels since 1998 — in March.

For shale exploration and production companies, however, the conventional wisdom has held for years that there is a light at the end of the tunnel — gas exports.

Unlike oil, natural gas is difficult to transport across oceans. To ship gas by tanker, it needs to be cooled to below -256 degrees Fahrenheit, an expensive and technologically challenging process, requiring the construction of multi-billion dollar Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) import and export terminals.

Pennsylvania Environmental Regulators Flunk State's Own Shale Gas Audit

In January 2013, Pennsylvania's auditor general announced that he would conduct an investigation into whether state regulators were effectively overseeing the impacts from the shale gas drilling rush.

A year and a half later, the results are in: the state's environmental regulators are failing badly in at least eight major areas, at times declining to cite drillers who broke the law. In a damning 158-page report, the state's auditor general highlighted the agency's wide-ranging failures. The report detailed the Department of Environmental Protection's (DEP) use of a legal “loop hole” to avoid inspecting wells and described the agnecy's failure to fulfill its duty to track the industry's toxic waste. The report also faulted the agency for a reliance on voluntary measures in policing the industry.

The federal government has largely taken a hands-off approach to policing the drilling boom. What federal rules do exist have various broad exemptions exemptions for the oil and gas industry. Pennsylvania, which features a large swath of the Marcellus shale, is widely viewed as ground zero for the current fracking boom. In the unusually candid report released this week, state auditors have concluded that the state is overwhelmed by the industry and is providing insufficient oversight.

“It is DEP’s responsibility to protect the environment from these environmental risks and to ensure that laws and regulations which govern potential impacts to water quality are enforced,” Pennsylvania's auditors wrote. “Unfortunately, DEP was unprepared to meet these challenges because the rapid expansion of shale gas development has strained DEP, and the agency has failed to keep up with the workload demands placed upon it.”

Auditors described state environmental regulators as woefully outgunned and unprepared for the sudden arrival of the shale gas drilling frenzy.

Could California's Shale Oil Boom Be Just a Mirage?

Since the shale rush took off starting in 2005 in Texas, drillers have sprinted from one state to the next, chasing the promise of cheaper, easier, more productive wells. This land rush was fueled by a wild spike in natural gas prices that helped make shale gas drilling attractive even though the costs of fracking were high.

As the selling price of natural gas sank from its historic highs in 2008, much of the luster wore off entire regions that had initially captivated investors, like Louisiana’s Haynesville shale or Arkansas’s Fayetteville, now in decline.

But unlike natural gas prices, oil prices remain high to this day, and investors and policymakers alike remain dazzled by the heady promise of oil from shale rock. Oil and gas companies have wrung significant amounts of black gold from shale oil plays like Texas’s Eagle Ford and North Dakota’s Bakken.

Shale oil, they say, is the next big thing.

“After years of talking about it, we’re finally poised to control our own energy future,” President Obama said in his most recent State of the Union address. “We produce more oil at home than we have in 15 years.”

But once again, the reality may be nothing like the hype. Consider California.

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