As the unconventional gas “revolution” was quietly unfolding in the United States, its potential to transform the U.S. gas market, and the country’s national energy discourse, was not apparent until recently. It has now become clear that shale gas development is perhaps the biggest energy sector innovation for the United States in recent decades. For Europe, however, the role shale gas will play in transforming energy markets is far from certain. The old continent’s unconventional gas reserves are substantial, but the question is how fast and to what extent Europe will develop them.
Europe needs a clear roadmap for the prospects of unconventional gas in its energy future. The current situation calls for an approach that is based on realistic expectations about the pace of shale gas development, as well as a strategy that is well-informed about potential costs and benefits. Continuing uncertainty could not only hamper the flow of investment into potential unconventional gas reserves, but could also impede the development of informed plans about Europe’s energy security and ability to fight climate change.
To begin with, it is worth recognizing Europe’s limitations. The combination of factors that led to the unconventional gas “revolution” in the United States—favorable geology, developed gas markets, and until recently, limited regulatory and public constraints—is not easy to replicate. Geologically, knowledge of unconventional gas in Europe does not go much beyond rough estimates. Where exactly are the shale deposits located? At what depth? And in what type of formations? At what cost could they be extracted? Europe still needs to start mapping out its shale gas reserves—a process that started almost three decades ago in the United States. At this point all that is known is that there are sufficient reserves to transform Europe’s gas market. Estimates vary but they consistently put the European Union’s unconventional reserves well above its conventional ones. Knowing this alone, however, is not enough.
The cost of developing shale gas reserves will be a principal factor in determining the future of unconventional gas in Europe. The sharp growth in shale gas output in the United States owes much to the considerable cost reduction witnessed over the past decades. Europe stands at the beginning of that process. Lack of comprehensive geological knowledge about shale precludes a precise estimate, though costs are expected to be high not least because of the scattered nature of reserves in Europe. The absence of a vibrant services sector for the gas market presents another bottleneck. The European gas sector’s limited capacity to provide cost-effective equipment for shale gas development along with a shortage of qualified labor will undoubtedly lead to higher development costs than in the United States. Costs can certainly go down, just like they did in the United States, as the industry gradually reacts to the needs of the market. But initial costs will pose a challenge.
In its quiet “revolution,” America’s unconventional gas industry outpaced both the regulators and the public. By the time stringent environmental demands became part of the national energy discourse, unconventional gas had already assumed its transformative role in the U.S. gas sector.
In Europe, if this revolution is ever to be repeated, it will not be a quiet one. The rigorous environmental regulations that are already in place—particularly with regard to water use—are prompting investors to think twice about managing costs before they commit. With their high population density, many European governments are less willing to embrace shale gas before its environmental impacts become apparent. In many countries, particularly in Western Europe, governments ignore environmental movements at their own peril. More investment in shale development will almost certainly have to confront calls for even stricter ecological requirements.
The EU’s energy and climate policy needs to recognize these constraints. It would be unrealistic to expect shale gas to be a panacea for the Union’s growing concerns on energy security and climate mitigation. This is true at least in the short and medium term.
And yet, discounting the potential role of unconventional gas in Europe’s future would be a mistake. It is in the EU’s long-term interest to maintain a role for shale gas development. Most industry insiders argue that unconventional gas will not contribute in any significant form to Europe’s energy supply until at least the end of this decade. Its role beyond that point, however, is anyone’s guess. How fast Europe develops these resources depends on today’s policy choices.
European policymakers should give shale gas development a chance. First, as a latecomer compared to the United States, Europe is more likely to find a way to develop its unconventional resources in an environmentally friendly fashion. Stricter regulations and low public tolerance for potential environmental risks may slow the pace of shale gas development. They can, however, also ensure that Europe develops these resources in the right way, avoiding some of the mistakes witnessed in America.
Second, the benefits of shale gas development could be disproportionately large. European gas supplies are in decline, while demand is expected to continue to grow. The EU’s ever growing need for imported gas is compounded by its dependence on a rather small number of external suppliers—Russia, Norway, and Algeria account for nearly three quarters of Europe’s imports. It is not certain that unconventional gas can reverse the decline in domestic gas output. However, it could certainly enhance the position of European importers when bargaining with their limited number of suppliers. Most recently, gas sold at spot markets, which constitutes only a fraction of total gas imports in Europe, effectively served such a role. Even Gazprom, known for its firm bargaining position, felt the need to revise a portion of its contracts. Shale gas could play a similar role for European importers in the future by enhancing competition. Increased liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports could potentially have a similar impact. But, they will be need to be sourced from outside the EU, maintaining Europe’s dependence on global LNG market trends.
Even if unconventional gas is not a “game changer” for Europe as a whole, it could be a “game changer” for a select group of EU members. Ironically, some of the countries with greater prospects for shale gas development—Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria—are among the most dependent on Russian gas.
At this point, the future of shale gas in Europe is very much in the hands of national governments. Legal competence for hydrocarbon development is mainly within the domain of these governments rather than Brussels. What they need is a well-informed national discourse on unconventional gas that involves all the main stakeholders. In effect, they need to avoid what France recently did—a rushed decision outlawing hydraulic fracturing—and instead attempt to fully assess the potential for developing shale gas while complying with strict environmental standards.
Brussels, on the other hand, does have a role to play. In addition to ensuring higher environmental standards, it could attempt to bring greater clarity about the future of natural gas in Europe’s energy balance. Mixed signals about its expected role have understandably preoccupied investors. Also, it could elaborate investment mechanisms for shale gas development that would serve its long-term decarbonization objectives by displacing more carbon-intensive sources of energy. Ultimately, Brussels should make certain that Europe does not miss this opportunity to seize the strategic potential offered by unconventional gas.
- Poland detains 7 suspected of shale gas corruption (reuters.com)
- IEA to make shale gas regulatory recommendations (business.financialpost.com)
- Shale boom in Europe fades as Polish wells come up empty (business.financialpost.com)
- Fracking could bring UK 50,000 jobs, says Browne (independent.co.uk)
The world’s largest oil-field services company is preparing for the boom in shale gas and oil development to spread beyond North America in the coming years, likely heating up in 2013.
Poland is already moving quickly to exploit gas reserves using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies. Many more promising basins have been located in Latin America and the Eastern Hemisphere, and drillers and well completion companies will probably see a major growth in international business related to shale extraction from 2013 and into 2014, a Halliburton executive told industry peers at an analyst event.
“Things are moving quickly, probably a little more quickly than we originally anticipated,” said Tim Probert, president of Halliburton’s strategy and corporate development division. The evolving situation beyond the United States and Canada, he said, promises a “robust outlook for the oil service industry.”
In the past year, Halliburton has discovered “a fairly sizable population” of shale basins and other unconventional oil and gas reserves that could be tapped using new and improving technologies, Probert said at a two-day event sponsored by the investment firm Jefferies.
Halliburton technology teams have been dispatched to do assessments in the Middle East, Latin America, Asia and Europe. The results they are reporting are raising eyebrows with regard to the potential for international business growth.
A total of 150 separate basins have been analyzed so far, Probert noted, and 60 have been assessed in detail. And although market and regulatory conditions will make many of those basins infeasible or impractical for oil and gas development, many more will eventually to opened up to exploration and exploitation, Halliburton predicts.
A more international operating environment will also probably force the industry to adapt new technologies and techniques for hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” that cause less concern among environmentalists and regulators, Probert added.
Halliburton is working on techniques that employ “clean” fracking fluids that use chemicals commonly found in the food-processing industry, he said. The company is investing millions of dollars in research in the hopes of creating the “frack of the future,” more environmentally friendly and less controversial fracking techniques, Probert said.
Halliburton also sees growing interest in the Middle East and other major historic oil patches to employ other enhanced extraction technologies aside from fracturing, to arrest future declining output from mature oil fields.
The company maintains that Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries] producers, in particular, are not investing enough in existing fields. That trend, the company said, will reverse as pressure builds in those nations to keep government revenues from oil and gas production flowing.
The company also sees business in the offshore sector perking up in the coming years. Many new rigs are seen coming online beyond the Gulf of Mexico. East Africa is an especially promising market, Probert said, adding that his company is moving to build the infrastructure in that region that will be necessary to support a robust offshore oil and gas industry there.
“We are more enthusiastic today than we were two quarters ago,” Probert said.
Source: E&E News. E&E News is published by Environment & Energy Publishing. For more news on energy and the environment, visit http://www.eenews.net/
- Halliburton Benefits As Europe Looks For Energy Security (blogs.forbes.com)
- Halliburton CEO: “Phenomenal” shale opportunities outside North America (gcaptain.com)
- East West Petroleum enters into agreement with Halliburton (prnewswire.com)
- Halliburton Profits Jumps 54 Percent Amid U.S. Drilling Boom (alternet.org)
While the green movement naively harbors hopes it will be able to shut down unconventional oil and gas development, in Saudi Arabia they are already contemplating a time when North American fossil fuel will replace their oil.
Looking past the din of protesters, state-owned oil giant Saudi Aramco is resigned to the fact that its influence will wane because of the massive unconventional fossil-fuel development underway in North America. As such, Saudi Arabia has no plans to raise its production output to 15 million barrels per day from 12 million, said Khalid Al-Falih, the powerful chief executive of Aramco.
“There is a new emphasis in the industry on unconventional liquids, and shale gas technologies are also being applied to shale oil,” Al-Falih, president and CEO of Saudi Aramco, warned a domestic audience in a speech in Riyadh Monday.
“Some are even talking about an era of ‘energy independence’ for the Americas, based on the immense conventional and unconventional hydrocarbon resources located there. While that might be stretching the point, it is clear that the abundance of resources and the more ‘balanced’ geographical distribution of unconventional’s have reduced the much-hyped concerns over ‘energy security’, which once served as the undercurrent driving energy policies and dominated the global energy debate.”
Aramco is the powerful state entity that manages the Kingdom’s nine million barrel-plus oil output. Saudi Arabia has long dominated oil markets by leveraging its spare oil capacity and, as the OPEC kingpin, striking a delicate balance between the interests of oil consumers and the exporter group.
But the oil chief’s remarks reveal Saudi fears that the market dynamics are changing and its dominance over energy markets is under threat by new unconventional finds.
OPEC estimated in a recent report that global reserves of tight oil could be as high as 300 billion barrels, above Saudi Arabia’s conventional reserves of 260 billion barrels, which are currently seen as the second-largest in the world after Venezuela.
Global output of non-conventional oil is set to rise 3.4 million bpd by 2015, still dominated by oil sands, to 5.8 million bpd by 2025 and to 8.4 million bpd by 2035, when tight oil would be playing a much bigger role. By 2035, the United States and Canada will still be dominating unconventional oil production with 6.6 million bpd, the group forecasts.
Last year, even as the world consumed nearly 30 billion barrels of oil, not only was the industry able to replace this production but global petroleum reserves actually increased by nearly seven billion barrels, as companies increasingly turned toward higher risk areas, Al-Falih noted.
Clearly, the Kingdom is preparing for new market realities as the discussion on energy has changed from scarcity to abundance, particularly due to the new finds that can be produced feasibly and economically.
In the past, Saudi Arabia, along with its OPEC allies, could drive prices down by opening the taps to ensure unconventional fossil fuels remained firmly buried in the ground. But most analysts now expect oil prices to remain high, at least over the medium term, thanks to tight supplies and continued demand from emerging markets. That’s great news for Canadian oil sands developers, which need prices around US$60 to US$70 per barrel to make their business models economically feasible.
Saudi Arabia’s own break-even oil price has also risen sharply in the past few years, making it less likely to pursue a strategy of lower prices. The Institute of International Finance estimates that Saudi Arabia’s break-even price has shot up US$20 over the past year to US$88, in part due to a generous spending package of US$130-billion announced this year to keep domestic unrest at bay.
The Saudis now find themselves between a shale rock and a hard place: While high crude prices mean the Saudis can maintain their excessive domestic subsidies for citizens, in the long run that means the world is developing new sources, making it less dependent on Saudi oil.
Although the Saudis have vigorously fought the Ethical Oil ads, which paint them in a negative light, they already know their oil is less welcome in the Americas – Saudi oil made up a mere 9.3% of U.S. oil imports last year, down from 11.2% five years ago, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
But while Saudis would be cheering on the green groups with ‘No KXL’ signs, they don’t hold out much hope for renewable energies either. Calling them ‘green bubbles,’ Al-Falih says governments should stop focusing on unproven and expensive energy mix, as there is frankly no appetite for massive investments in expensive, ill thought-out energy policies and pet projects.
“The confluence of four new realities – increasing supplies of oil and gas, the failure of alternatives to gain traction, the inability of economies to foot the bill for expensive energy agendas, and shifting environmental priorities – have turned the terms of the global energy dialogue upside down. Therefore, we must recast our discussion in light of actual conditions rather than wishful thinking,” the pragmatic chief said.
Somebody should explain this wishful thinking to the green movement.
- New oil reserves seen reducing Saudi Arabias importance (theglobeandmail.com)
- Saudis worry over North American shale oil surge (business.financialpost.com)