The thing about pathological liars is that they also lie to themselves. Their lies get them into ever deeper trouble, which they attempt to handle by mumbling lies to themselves, which don’t help, which causes them to double down on lies until gravity reasserts itself and the world falls on them. Keep this in mind as we watch the end state of the oil and gas industry.
The natural-gas spokesman on TV is not only an ExxonMobil geologist, he’s a big, solid guy with smile-crinkled eyes, telling us that “technology” (for which word we could as well substitute “God,” or “the lottery”) has delivered for our benefit something that was “right underneath our feet” all the time. (Kind of imprecise for a geologist: by “right underneath” he means at least a thousand feet down.) As if by magic, he says, “Technology has made it possible to safely unlock this cleaner burning natural gas. These deposits can provide us with fuel for 100 years.” His eyes crinkle even more as the music swells and he seems to mouth the words, “You’re welcome.” In other venues we hear other spin, about natural gas replacing coal as our source of electricity, replacing gasoline as our means of transport, replacing imported oil, and curing cancer. I only made one of those up.
The “technology” to which the nice man refers is, of course, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a method for getting at natural gas that is locked into shale. The method is new, but the technology as about as advanced as gunpowder; it’s a matter of blasting water, sand and an array of noxious chemicals into the shale deep underground so powerfully that the brittle rock is shattered and the gas released. The process is about as benign as cancer, and in its brief life (our friends at Halliburton invented it about 20 years ago) has created a legacy of accidents, blowouts, and polluted waters above and below ground.
The surprising thing about this ad, and about the campaign of disinformation of which it is a part, is not that it is a crock, but that the industry itself seems to believe it and has invested in it, big time. They resemble a Bernie Madoff, his Ponzi scheme unraveling, not only lying his face off trying to get new investors into the rapidly draining pool, but actually believing that he is an investment wizard, not a liar, and that this time he really will make a killing in the market.
Thus does the oil and gas industry insist, with gritted teeth and sweating brow, that (for example) deep, deep, deep-water drilling is safe and economical, and that fracking will deliver to us an indefinite extension of our cheap-energy bonanza. One reason they have to say this is to get in the door the new investment money they need in order to frack. Whether they know it or not (remember the part about the pathological liar in trouble) they are lying, and in this final stage their lies are beginning to hurt them almost as much as us.
There are today about a half a million active natural gas wells in operation in the United States, twice as many as existed 20 years ago, and almost all of the increase has been accounted for by fracking wells. But wait, there’s more. According to a new study by the Post Carbon Institute (Will Natural Gas Fuel America in the 21st Century, by J. David Hughes), in the same time period the production per well has declined by 50 per cent. It turns out, according to this study, that fracking wells, which are monstrously expensive to set up and to operate, usually yield gas for about a year, then fizzle out, and must be replaced by a new well. All of this makes the bottom line red. Most outside analysts estimate the current average cost of producing shale gas by fracking at around $7.50 per thousand cubic feet. Current selling price: about $4.00.
So if the fracking wells are expensive, short-lived money losers that frequently pollute surrounding land and surface water, as well as water wells (occasionally making them flammable) then the question becomes: who’s winning here? And why are we doing this?
Yet not only the industry but the federal government — specifically, the Energy Information Administration — predicts that shale gas production will quadruple in the next 20 years, providing nearly half of all natural gas in the US by 2035. With each new, hideously expensive fracking well lasting only a year, with the gas it yields costing nearly twice what it sells for, and with the proliferating wells spreading pollution throughout the water supply of more and more of the population, it’s a little hard to see how this could work.
Unless, of course, you’re a pathological liar and con man at the end of your rope. But as the Post Carbon Institute study observes, “The biggest losers in this misguided rush to anoint shale gas as America’s energy savior are members of the public, who need sound energy policy based on realistic expectations for future supply, as well as sound assessments of economic and environmental costs.”