CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The potential for natural gas from shale formations to fuel the nation's energy future is greatly over-hyped by the industry and its political supporters, according to a recent report that says wells are playing out faster than has been projected.
Geologist David Hughes says in the report that "the geological and environmental realities" of the ongoing boom in shale gas and shale or "tight" oil "deserve a closer look" by political leaders and the public.
"The projections by pundits and some government agencies that these technologies can provide endless growth heralding a new era of 'energy independence,' in which the U.S. will become a substantial net exporter of energy, are entirely unwarranted based on the fundamentals," Hughes wrote. "At the end of the day, fossil fuels are finite and these exuberant forecasts will prove to be extremely difficult or impossible to achieve."
Hughes wrote the report, "Drill, Baby, Drill: Can Unconventional Fuels Usher in a New Era of Energy Abundance?" for the Post-Carbon Institute, a nonprofit group that conducts analysis and educational programs aimed at the eventual end of carbon-based fuels. A version of Hughes' analysis appeared as a commentary in the latest version of the scientific journal Nature.
Hughes notes that there has been a sharp increase in shale-gas production nationwide, from about 2 percent of U.S. production in 2000 to nearly 40 percent in 2012.
Two technologies -- horizontal drilling coupled with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking -- have made it possible to reach oil and gas reserves that previously were not accessible. In 2004, less than 10 percent of U.S. wells were horizontal. Today, that figure is 61 percent.
But Hughes says a pattern has emerged in shale-gas fields.
"When a play is discovered, a leasing frenzy ensues," he wrote. "This is followed by a drilling boom because the lease assignments, often 3 to 5 years long, can be terminated if the site is not producing gas.
"Sweet spots -- small areas with high productivity -- are identified and drilled off first, with marginal areas targeted next," he wrote. "Average well quality rises at first, and then declines.