Natural-gas data fuels ‘fracking’ battle

But, he said, it’s too soon to say what EIA’s next estimate for Marcellus Shale resources will be.

“USGS has just begun to share details of their assessment with EIA. As we learn more about those details we will have a better understanding of how best to integrate the information into the projections presented in the next edition of our Annual Energy Outlook 2012,” he said of the study that surveys U.S. energy trends decades into the future.

The statistical nitty-gritty has big political implications.

Gas from shale formations is commonly tapped with hydraulic fracturing — or “fracking” — a method that advocates tout as a way to unlock vast supplies, boosting energy security and the economy in the process.

But environmentalists fear the U.S. shale-gas boom could lead to widespread groundwater pollution by expanding use of fracking, which involves high-pressure injections of water, chemicals and sand into gas-bearing rock formations.

Fracking foes pounced Wednesday on the USGS figure because it’s vastly lower than the EIA projection.

“It is clear that there is not, nor will there ever be, enough gas in the region to justify fracking, especially given the risks it poses to public health and the environment. It also goes to show why the natural gas industry shouldn't be given license to police its own fracking activity, or to write its own rules,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, in a statement.

Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), a fracking opponent on Capitol Hill, said the USGS estimate should prompt a review of plans for shale-gas development in his state, noting “it is important that we understand all of the environmental and economic impacts that would result if drilling were to move forward in our state.”

“That's why it is essential that the public, the markets and policy makers have unbiased shale gas reserve estimates,” he said.

Natural-gas companies say they employ safeguards to protect groundwater and that contamination concerns are vastly overstated.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, this week welcomed the new USGS data that showed a big increase from its 2002 projections.

“These new figures are further affirmation that the Marcellus Shale will continue to safely produce prolific amounts of clean-burning American natural gas for generations to come. While advent of shale gas development in the United States was only several years ago, its impact is proving to be profound and lasting,” said Kathryn Klaber, the group’s president, in a statement earlier this week.

On Thursday, a spokesperson for the group sought to focus on the USGS’s huge increase in its projections, rather than their size compared to EIA’s estimate.

“Technological advancements continue to help responsibly unlock enormous amounts of clean-burning American energy. Yet with reports that a 4,100 percent increase in Marcellus reserves somehow, strangely, represent a decrease, we also know that it’s silly season,” the spokesperson said.

The new USGS data comes at a time when U.S. shale gas development — which is booming in Pennsylvania, Texas and other states — is drawing wider scrutiny along a number of fronts.

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman recently sent subpoenas to several energy companies seeking information about how they are representing the long-term productivity and profitability of their gas wells, according to several published reports.

The Securities and Exchange Commission has also sent subpoenas to multiple companies relating to gas wells and reserves.

Shale-gas production has soared in recent years as advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have enabled economic production.

EIA estimates that gas from shale formations will account for 47 percent of U.S. gas production in 2035, up from 16 percent in 2009.

EIA’s Cogan says total resource estimates are just part of the story when it comes to natural-gas development.

“Variation in factors related to drilling costs and well productivity can have a larger effect on projected natural gas production and prices than variation in the assumed amount of technically recoverable resources,” Cogan said in an email.