Shale revolution grows stronger

There seems no end to the stream of good news coming out of the energy sector. The Energy Information Administration this week released a report updating on the world's shale potential.

Floor hands David Vannapha, left, Mario Ramos, center, and Jose Garza make a pipe connection on the drill string on the Orion Perseus drilling rig near Encinal in Webb County, Texas, U.S., on Monday, March 26, 2012. The Perseus is drilling for oil and gas in the Eagle Ford Shale, a sedimentary rock formation underlying an area of South and East Texas. Photographer: Eddie Seal/Bloomberg *** Local Caption *** David Vannapha; Mario Ramos; Jose Garza
 *** Local Caption *** David Vannapha; Mario Ramos; Jose Garza
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There seems no end to the stream of good news coming out of the energy sector.

After the International Energy Agency (IEA) last November hailed the United States shale revolution by predicting that the country would become the biggest producer of oil by the end of the decade, the compliments have now been returned.

The Energy Information Administration (EIA), the US government department that releases energy data, this week released a report updating on the world's shale potential.

The term shale revolution is shorthand for the enormous boost in gas - and increasingly oil - supply in the US and Canada, enabled by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, an extraction technique that releases hydrocarbons from previously inaccessible rock formations.

Oil and gas stuck in ungiving rock is not unique to North America - far from it.

The EIA emphasises this in its report, which states that estimates for recoverable shale oil worldwide have grown more than ten-fold to 345 billion barrels, increasing total reserves by 11 per cent. According to the report, 7,299 trillion cubic feet of shale gas would add 47 per cent to global reserves.

Shale is being talked about as a game changer, rightly so, and much is made of its potential to weaken Opec's influence on the oil markets.

One of the most significant points made by the report, however, is not in what it says, but in what it has left out.

While many parts of the world are extensively analysed - Russia for instance has even bigger reserves than the US - the Gulf is literally a blank space on EIA's shale map. The biggest source of conventional oil and gas has been left out because data for the region are not sufficient to make a proper assessment of its shale potential.

This is a problem elsewhere, and even the reservoirs considered by the report exist in very different conditions to those in the US.

The US, a major consumer and traditionally a big producer of oil and gas, benefits from a vast pipeline system, a wealth of geological data and about five times the amount of the drilling rigs present in the Gulf, says Sadad Al Husseini, a former executive vice president for upstream operations at Saudi Aramco.

When conventional gas production dried up, this infrastructure, which also includes oilfield services companies and easy access to financing, was there to deliver when fracking made shale accessible.

"There is little doubt that [global] shale reserves are vast, however, one should never equate underground reserves with overground production, given the various constraints such as infrastructure, technology, availability of service industries, knowledge et cetera," says Amrita Sen, the chief oil analyst at Energy Aspects.

It is likely that the Gulf is home to significant shale reserves, given the scale of its conventional oil and gas reservoirs. If this is to be tapped, concerted efforts to analyse the rock formations that lie deep under the surface are essential.

"Before the decision can be made, one has to gather a lot more information about the resource itself," says Mr Al Husseini.

This is happening already. Saudi Arabia has committed to some test drilling, as have Abu Dhabi and Kuwait. In Oman, BP has already invested US$700 million in gauging the commercial viability of the Khazzan tight gasfield, where gas is trapped in deep lying rock formations similar to shale.

The British company expects to make a final investment decision before the year is out, but one key problem remains to be solved. Not used to paying much for its gas, the Omani government has so far baulked at the price of gas that BP has proposed for the project. Without a significant mark up on current prices, the project will not be commercially viable for the company, however.

Khazzan is symptomatic for unconventional gas in the Gulf. Sold at very low rates to power plants and industry, gas does not generate sufficient revenue to justify heavy investment in the upstream on a commercial basis.

Many observers believe that low prices are not sustainable in the face of spiralling demand.

"Shale gas would not be economic at current gas prices, but then everybody has accepted that gas prices have to go up," says Robin Mills, the head of consulting at Manaar Energy.

Governments in the Gulf may have to accept that they will end up making a loss as conventional resources are not able to keep up with demand, but economic diversification and the extremely high use of electricity by its population makes cheap gas a necessity.

Unconventional gas, a term that also includes sulphur rich tight gas, could end up being cheaper than imported liquefied natural gas (LNG), says Mr Mills. This applies to shale gas, too, even if the lack of infrastructure would initially make production more expensive than in the US.

The Gulf countries are widely predicted to be increasingly short of gas, and LNG imports are already a reality in Kuwait and the UAE, where import capacity is being scaled up.

While shale oil might not become feasible in the Gulf as long as conventional oil production ensures healthy export revenues, the case for gas is different. Shale could become necessary to augment conventional resources and avoid LNG imports, and thus be a feature in the Gulf hydrocarbon sector.

It is likely that the Gulf will not be a blank space in future EIA shale maps.