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Here’s The Script, in four despicable acts:
Act 1.Fracking boom goes bust as production from shale gas and tight oil wells stalls out and lurches into decline.
Act 2. Oil and gas industry loudly blames anti-fracking environmentalists and restrictive regulations.
Act 3. Congress rolls back environmental laws.
Act 4. Loosened regulations do little to boost actual oil and gas production, which continues to tank, but the industry wins the right to exploit marginal resources a little more cheaply than would otherwise have been the case.
You can bet The Script is being written in operational detail right now at corporate headquarters in Oklahoma City and Houston, and in the offices of PR firms in New York and Boston. Each of its elements has the inevitability of events in a Shakespearean tragedy.
It’s fairly clear that the fracking bubble will burst soon—almost certainly within the decade. Our ongoing analysis at Post Carbon Institute documents the high per-well decline rates (a typical well’s production drops 70 percent during the first year), the high variability of production potential within geological formations being tapped and the dwindling number of remaining drilling sites in the few “sweet spots” that offer vaguely profitable drilling potential. Meanwhile, as the Energy Information Administration (EIA) has recently documented, the balance sheets of fracking companies are loaded with debt while surprisingly short on profits from sales of product—with real profits coming mostly from sales of assets (drilling leases).
The industry continues to claim that tight oil and shale gas are “game changers” and that these resources will last many decades if not centuries. Though the CEOs of companies engaged in shale gas and tight oil drilling are undoubtedly aware of what’s going on in their own balance sheets, hype is an essential part of their business model—which can be summarized as follows:
Step 1. Borrow money and use it to lease thousands of acres for drilling.
Step 2. Borrow more money and drill as many wells as you can, as quickly as you can.
Step 3. Tell everyone within shouting distance that this is just the beginning of a production boom that will continue for the remainder of our lives and the lives of our children and that everyone who invests will get rich.
Step 4. Sell drilling leases to other (gullible) companies at a profit, raise funds through Initial Public Offerings or bond sales, and use the proceeds to hide financial losses from your drilling and production operations.