As the United States struggles to address the two-pronged problem of encouraging economic activity and increasing domestic energy supplies, it is no wonder that the search for energy resources has looked ever wider and with rosier visions of the potential yield. The exuberance that has led to various gas and oil booms through the ages has a new(ish) target: shale gas. The trouble is, like many that have come before it, the shale mania that is sweeping the nation may be more hype than hydrocarbons.
In massive formations from the Barnett in Texas to the Fayetteville in Arkansas to Marcellus in Pennsylvania, New York and Maryland, shale gas has for the past several years figuring prominently in the constant quest to find new domestic sources of petroleum. Smaller formations, including the Gothic near Dolores, have drawn interest and exploration as well. It is turning out, though, that much of the promise that industry had hoped these formations held is being obscured by a number of factors including reserves that are less plentiful than projected, as well as the growing complication and cost of accessing the deeply trapped gas. More and more, the industry is finding that the wells are not producing according to projections, and when they are, the amount of water it takes to release the gas as well as the investment of time and money it takes to conduct more hydraulic fracturing than anticipated originally is making developing shale plays less of a sure thing. As a result, The New York Times reported on Sunday, investors are shying away from the endeavor.
The zealousness with which industry and investors embraced shale formations as the next big thing brought with it the predictable rush to expedite access to the gas. Environmental and public health concerns were, as is too often the case, dismissed as impediments to bringing the gas to the surface and to markets. That breathlessness comes with significant consequences, and provides a cautionary tale on the importance of balance in energy development.
Whether or not a shale formation bears the fruit that industry predicts, there is no harm in conducting full analyses of the potential. In fact, it would be an exercise in diligence that the industry has failed to demonstrate in the shale rush. Instead, investors have thrown money into poorly calculated hopes that have not proven their worth. In the wake of the effort, though, is impacts on private and public land, water, and air quality in communities across the country.
Gothic shale, like so many of its more famous cousins, is thus far not proving to be a gusher of dramatic proportions, and as the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service complete a supplemental environmental impact statement analyzing the impacts of roughly 1,700 proposed wells on the formation, there is an opportunity to take the appropriate precautions that balanced development dictates. If the Gothic proves to be the exception to the apparent trend of disappointing results in shale formations, there will be little lost in ensuring that extracting the gas is done right. In a region already fraught with water issues and concerns about air quality, it is nothing short of essential.