Thursday, May 22, 2014

NY shale prospects dim six years after leasing frenzy Industry faces mounting legal, economic hurdles

New York’s Marcellus Shale gas reserves, once thought to be world class, continue to lose their luster along with the gumption to develop them.

Shale gas proponents, once giddy with anticipation during the leasing boom of 2008, know now what they didn’t know then: legal hurdles to overcome state and local roadblocks look more formidable if not insurmountable with each passing court case and hearing, and the resource looks less and less worth the effort under today’s economics.

Given the inherent uncertainty in mineral exploration, much of the impetus behind it boils down to a mindset. While even some of the most ambitious extraction endeavors go bust, it’s a given that resources buried 5,000 feet deep will not be found where nobody chooses to look. And nobody is going to look if they are not allowed to, or if the effort of looking is deemed greater than the rewards anticipated under any scenario.

Two recent indicators of future prospects in New York have, for the most part, slipped under the radar of the mainstream press, but it’s a reasonable bet they have not escaped notice of prospectors and the people who finance them. The first indicator is the status of a lawsuit by industry and a group of landowners to legally force open the Marcellus frontier in New York. I’ll get to that in a minute. The other indicator is the latest assessment of economically recoverable reserves under current market conditions, if the moratorium were lifted or bypassed.

First the economics. Although it may be a fading memory for many, stakeholders will remember a time when New York was expected to join Pennsylvania as a global energy producer with gas from the Marcellus Shale. Many will recall the summer of 2008, when the leasing frenzy – whipped up by a $110 million deal between XTO Energy and landowners in Deposit, New York – sent lease prices soaring along the relatively unexplored fringes of the Marcellus in the Southern Tier of New York.

Since then, the price of natural gas has fallen by more than two thirds. Moreover, New York state’s moratorium on shale gas development, pending a review originally expected to last a year, is about to begin year seven, with no end in sight. In the meantime prospectors have moved on to other ventures, leaving many to wonder when and if they will return to the Empire State. The answer is simple: They will return when and if a) it’s allowed and b) it’s profitable.

The League of Women voters became interested in the profitability issue when the state released its 2014 Energy Plan, which includes vague references to shale gas development within New York’s borders. To help bring things into focus, the league  commissioned petroleum geologist Arthur Berman and petroleum engineer Lyndon Pittinger to assess the potential of the shale gas under New York state in the context of market viability.

The result, a report titled Resource Assessment of Potentially Producible Natural Gas Volumes from the Marcellus Shale, State of New York, was released last month. It begins with varying projections of the Marcellus Shale potential from credible sources that show, if anything, just how uncertain the starting point of that calculation is and always has been. Estimates of the recoverable reserve range from those posed by Penn State geologist Terry Engelder in 2008 -- 489 trillion cubic feet (tcf), with about 71 tcf under New York stat – to those offered by The United States Geological Society in 2011: 84.2 tcf for the entire Marcellus play extending through Pennsylvania and four other states.

To clear up a point of common confusion, these numbers represent “technically recoverable” gas. As Berman and Pittinger point out, the “economically recoverable” figure, which is more relevant, is bound to be lower. Both figures are moving targets. That which is technically recoverable changes with technological advances; economically recoverable resources change with economy, and specifically with the value of the resource. The  value, in turn, is influenced by supply, demand, and infrastructure to get it to market. All of these things are influenced by regulation, which in New York remains unknown.

In a nut, the League of Women Voters report found that the business of fracking in New York, moratorium aside, would not be viable at today’s price -- between $4 and $4.50 per MMBtu, or Million British Thermal Units. The price would have to rise to $6 per MMBtu to encourage exploration and even then production would be modest -- between the 0.8 and 2.5 Tfc. A price of $8 MMBtu would encourage production between 2 to 9.1 tcf -- more than marginal but hardly the bonanza that people were expecting in 2008. For gas to reach $6 MMBtu, Berman notes, “Substantial unforeseen changes in the natural gas supply/demand balance would need to occur.”

(You can hear Berman discuss his report with Capitol Press Room Host Susan Arbetter here.)

It’s fair to note that Berman has long been a critic of shale gas development, and his projections tend to reflect a broader notion that its economic sustainability falls well short of expectations promoted within the field. But he is respected, and even shale gas proponents such as Engelder, given the chance, show no eagerness to flatly dismiss his assessment of New York. “Art may not be that far off the mark although he is usually low relative to other analyses,” Engelder said in a recent email, asking his take on Berman’s work.  “Maybe some of Broome County works at $4 gas,” Engelder added.

It’s also worth noting that Berman’s analysis draws on and expands the same school of thought developed last year by a team comprised of a cross-section of professionals, led by investor Chip Northrup, who happen to be upstate New York residents and who have been conspicuous in the battle to keep fracking out of their state. The team also includes Lou Allstadt, a retired Mobil vice president, Brian Brock, a geologist, and Jerry Acton, a retired systems engineer for Lockheed Martin. (Here's link to Northrup's blog, No Fracking Way.)

Within days of the release of the report by the League of Women Voters, shale gas proponents suffered another discouragement on the legal front. First, some background: Undaunted by a string of defeats in state court that have consistently ruled in favor of municipalities’ rights to ban drilling, a legal team representing landowners and industry filed a suit against New York that claims the indefinite moratorium on shale gas development violates the state’s own policy under the State Environmental Quality Review Act. The state filed a motion for dismissal on the grounds that the plaintiffs had suffered no damages and the moratorium fell well within the state’s right in establishing policy on shale gas, regardless of how long it took to review all the factors.

The complaint was filed by the Joint Landowners Coalition of New York, represented by Scott Kurkowski and funded by the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a group founded by the Koch brothers to fund conservative legal causes. A companion suit was filed by industry lawyer Tom West on behalf of Mark Wallach, a trustee of Norse Energy, a bankrupt drilling company with interests in upstate New York. Morgan Costello of the attorney general’s office provided council for the state.

On April 24, both sides appeared in a hearing before state Supreme Court Judge Roger McDonough. It’s often tough to tell the outcome of a case based on a hearing and prior to a ruling, but by all counts, the judge seemed to lack sympathy for the landowners, and pressed them on the merits of their complaint against the state. Here’s an excerpt from an account posted April 26 on the Joint Landowners website:

Judge McDonough asked if the executive branch can delay forever. Ms. Costello’s answer was that it can take extended time. Judge McDonough seemed to agree with Ms. Costello on the executives role, calling it “separation of powers 101.”
Attorney Tom West for Norse spoke next. The Judge focused on time limits in SEQRA. There are none. He suggested that this should be remedied in the legislature or in the executive branch. As Attorney West kept hammering at the history of delay and the ongoing wrong, the Judge said that he can only take the executive on its word at this stage of the process. (Editor’s note: Motive will emerge in discovery, but we have to get past the motion to dismiss in order to get to discovery.) The Judge sympathized with the frustration but kept returning to time limits in the law.

The blog concluded optimistically that the “judge reserved decision” and though he did not recognize the fracking moratorium as an “illegal delay” under the state’s SEQR policy, there may be an opening for an argument of “unreasonable delay.”

That optimism was not shared by West. In a recent email in response to my query about the status of the case, West was blunt:  “We are not expecting a positive decision based upon the way that oral argument went.” The West Law firm took down the links to the complaints once posted on its website.

While the jury is still out, so to speak, there is little good news based on these recent events for those counting on a near-term future in shale exploration and development in New York, and plenty of good news for those hoping to see New York lay the groundwork to establish itself as an alternative energy trend-setter.

But the story is not that simple, of course, with plot lines extending well beyond New York, and woven deeply into the national and global circumstances that will determine the future of fracking. Those plots are quickly evolving.

One example: The U.S. Energy Information Administration has just cut its estimates of recoverable reserves in the Monterey Shale in California by 96 percent. California, like New York, is politically influential, and it’s hard to ignore other similarities regarding their roles in the fracking saga. In California, the notion that the geology cannot support the hype has enlivened the argument that the fracking bonanza was a bust from start, and has encouraged legislation for a moratorium similar to New York’s.

But while shale gas prospects are dimming in New York and California, they are getting a big push from places inbetween as well as other parts of the world. Global forces are encouraging development of gas reserves in dozens of other U.S. states to capitalize on growing international demand for cheap and readily available fuel sources, with the economic and political equation favoring expediency over externalized costs. Those demands, already substantial and growing in Asia, have spiked in Europe. The age-old call for energy independence is again taking on a new urgency in the Free World, with the Ukraine crises vividly illustrating the danger of energy dependence on unpredictable and unfriendly governments – in this case, Russia.

Many think more gas from the U.S. and a global spread of the fracking gospel is the answer. Michael Lindenberger of the Dallas Morning News, recently reporting on the significance of a deal for Russia to strengthen it’s economic status with a $400 billion deal to export gas to China, cited Texas Senator John Cornyn as characterizing the broad political push for policy to encourage more U.S. exports. More exports, according to Cornyn, make economic sense but, moreover, are justified “because of the competition it would provide for Putin and the Russian monopoly.”

Of course, we are talking about shale gas and fracking, so it comes as no surprise that there is little consensus and much division on the topic. Seamus McGraw, author of End of County, Dispatches from the Frack Zone, has been following the fracking issue since he began writing his book as the shale gas boom first developed in Pennsylvania. He points out that the global economics of shale gas cannot be isolated from the economics of other energy sources, including coal. The political urgency provoked by international threats in areas involving key American interests must account for the practicalities of various solutions. And a primary practicality  of shale gas exports involves infrastructure in place to get energy where it needs to go today, not years from now. And here I will give McGraw the last word. In a recent discussion on my Facebook page, he posted:

You're not going to break Russia's stranglehold (on natural gas exports) because a) they've got pipelines which beat LNG (liquid natural gas) every time, and b) because they can set the price as low as they want to drive us out of market and then jack it back up at will. All this is going to do is drive up prices here to the point that gas may no longer be reliably competitive with coal, choke off any ancillary economic benefits to manufacturing, and concentrate what advantages there are entirely in the industry itself. And even that, as the Russia/China deal demonstrates, isn't going to be nearly as lucrative as the industry imagines. It's a bad deal all around.

Ultimately, global markets along with political considerations will shape the deal, good or bad, and determine whether the value of gas in places like New York ever justifies the costs of extracting it.