Feds slash natural-gas resource estimate; production to keep rising

“The decline largely reflects a decrease in the estimate for the Marcellus shale, from 410 trillion cubic feet to 141 trillion cubic feet,” states the outlook, a closely watched forecast of various U.S. energy production and consumption trends through 2035.

The revision comes months after a separate agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, issued a mean estimate of 85 trillion cubic feet for the Marcellus. Some environmentalists who oppose fracking over water pollution concerns pounced on the USGS estimate last year because it was so much lower than EIA’s then-projection of 410 trillion cubic feet.

The group Food & Water Watch said in August that there will never be enough gas in the region to justify fracking, “especially given the risks it poses to public health and the environment.”

But Howard Gruenspecht, EIA’s acting administrator, on Monday cautioned against reading too much into the revised resource estimates.

“I am sure this will receive some attention. But resource estimates are not the only driver, or even the most important driver, of natural-gas production and price projections for the next 25 years,” he said during a press conference at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

Gruenspecht also said the resource estimates are a snapshot in time.

“Resource assessments are clearly highly uncertain — everything is uncertain — but resource assessments are really, really uncertain, and I am sure that EIA and others will be working to improve their estimates as new information about geology and well productivity becomes available over time,” he said Monday.

Current U.S. annual natural-gas consumption is roughly 25 trillion cubic feet.

The EIA forecast projects continued increases in U.S. natural-gas production, and indeed EIA has increased natural-gas production estimates through 2035 by 7 percent, noting advances in drilling technology and other factors.

Shale gas specifically is estimated to account for roughly half of U.S. dry gas production in 2035, reaching 13.6 trillion cubic feet that year in EIA’s forecast.

The agency projects that U.S. natural-gas production is expected to exceed consumption early in the next decade. “The United States is projected to become a net exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in 2016, a net pipeline exporter in 2025, and an overall net exporter of natural gas in 2021,” the analysis states.

The EIA report is a wide-ranging look at gas, coal, oil, renewables, carbon emissions and other issues.

It forecasts continued U.S. oil production increases. From the study:

Domestic crude oil production has increased over the past few years, reversing a decline that began in 1986. U.S. crude oil production increased from 5.1 million barrels per day in 2007 to 5.5 million barrels per day in 2010. Over the next 10 years, continued development of tight oil, in combination with the ongoing development of offshore resources in the Gulf of Mexico, pushes domestic crude oil production in the Reference case to 6.7 million barrels per day in 2020, a level not seen since 1994. Even with a projected decline after 2020, U.S. crude oil production remains above 6.1 million barrels per day through 2035.

EIA also forecasts decreased reliance on oil imports as a result of U.S. production growth, fuel mileage standards, the growth of biofuels and other factors.

Imports, as a share of liquid fuels consumption, are forecast to drop from 49 percent in 2010 to 36 percent in 2035, and that figure does not include further oil savings expected through upcoming rules to boost auto mileage standards for model years 2017-2025.

The production and import reliance projections could prove politically useful for the White House, which is fending off GOP calls to open vast new offshore regions to oil-and-gas production.