Just How Viable Is Fracking As An Industry

This article was first written in 2012 and has had information added at intervals since. The basic thrust however, remains the same!

Here in the Fylde we are being asked to make sacrifices so that the UK can get whatever benefits are available from fracking.

We regard these hypothetical benefits as highly questionable and it would seem that we are not alone. Worse than that though the viability of the entire fracking industry industry has been called into question by people working in the industry itself.

The New York Times has spent six months investigating the industry and what it finds isn’t very encouraging. Here is a representative sample:

The word in the world of the independents is that the shale plays are just giant Ponzi schemes and the economics just don’t work

You can see the source of this quote and a lot more analysis which suggests that investors may regret funding the shale gas operators before too long. As well as talk of Ponzi schemes, industry insiders make comparisons with Enron and the sub-prime crisis.

Obviously most of this relates to the American experience, but we fail to see how things would be any different over here. Indeed with costs being higher due to increased density of population and shale plays being deeper, if anything the economic pressure on the drillers will be even greater.

One quote that jumped out at us was from an official from Schlumberger, an oil and gas services company, who says they are working on a well in Europe:

All about making money. I’m working on a shale gas well that was just drilled in Europe. Looks like crap, but operator will flip it based on “potential” and make some money on it. Always a great sucker…

… and herein lies our problem. The companies doing the exploring are unlikely to the ones doing the production. They find the shale plays and then sell them on. So when we hear Cuadrilla talking about potential reserve sizes they may be being totally honest with us, but even the dimmest intelligence would have to realise that the more they talk up the potential, the more they would stand to gain.

All in all it does not fill us with confidence that if the arable Fylde is ravaged at the hands of these people, it will be for any sort of good result.

We may yet go down in the history books one day as the “West Coast Bubble”.

Another worrying factor is the volatility involved in the raw materials. You may not realise but the industry is highly dependent on guar gum – a product from the guar bean grown almost exclusively in India. Demand for this product has been hugely distorted by the USA fracking boom that according to the Guardian in December 2012

this year the price rise was so steep that giant US oilfield services company Halliburton was forced to issue a profit warning, cautioning investors that the rising cost of guar would hurt its profits because it had risen to represent 30% of its costs.

This is hardly a stable industry is it?

Further evidence of the dysfunctional financing of shale gas in the USA can be found in this New York Times article and in this article from the Energy Policy Forum. George Osborne tells us that we need the economic benefits of shale gas over here. May we respectfully suggest that he reads these two articles?

In 2014 this article from Forbes https://www.forbes.com/sites/billpowers/2014/09/03/the-popping-of-the-shale-gas-bubble/ laid bare the unsustainable nature of the USA’s shale gas bubble. There is no reason to believe that it would be any less fragile in Europe.

From our point of view the danger lies in the fact that once these guys go bust they can’t be chased for any damage resulting from their wells. The state (i.e. you and me) will be left to pick up the bill.

In 2013 Cuadrilla’s major backer AJ Lucas share have dropped from $Au 1.68 to $Au 1.27 since the day Cuadrilla announced that they would have a further delay at Anna’s Road. They reached a high of $Au 2.08 after the government gave the go-ahead in December. Things are starting to look less comfortable for Cuadrilla’s Australian backer almost by the day. This business is VERY capital intensive in the early stages and if the smart money starts to fly away, they really are going to need those juicy tax breaks promised to them by Mr Osborne. The question in our mind is why, if the market doesn’t believe in this enough to provide funding for it, should we be asked to do so?

In April 2013, in what was described as “a blow to Government attempts to attract investment to the controversial industry”, Royal Dutch Shell announced that they had no intention of investing in the shale gas industry in the UK regardless of the tax breaks promised by an increasingly desperate George Osborne.

In October 2013 Peter Voser, retiring Chief Executive told the Financial Times that the failure of Royal Dutch Shell’s huge bet on US shale was a big regret of his time as chief executive of the company saying that “Unconventionals did not exactly play out as planned”. The FT reported hat “Shell has invested at least $24bn in so-called unconventional oil and gas in North America. But it is a bet that has yet to pay off. Its North American upstream business has struggled to turn a profit and in August Shell announced a strategic review of its US shale portfolio after taking a $2.1bn impairment.”

Mr Voser also said in this article that

rhetoric about the US shale revolution being exported to other countries was “hyped”, and that the rest of the world was in an early “exploration phase” which could yield “negative surprises”.

Autumn of 2018.

As you can see this article was started some years ago and if anything the story has got worse for the frackers. Estimates of onshore extraction costs have been produced that range from 48p to £1.02 per therm, whilst natural gas futures price hover around 50p a therm for the medium term, meaning it will probably be cheaper to import LNG than produce domestic shale gas.

Cuadrilla are bleeding cash every year and have yet to produce a molecule of British gas.

Meanwhile the share price of AJ Lucas, the part parent of Cuadrilla has slumped from a high of $5.58 in mid 2008 to a miserable $0.34 10 years later. You can read more about their travails here.

This is not an industry which would inspire confidence even if it were not being so fiercely resisted.

In March 2022 The Ukraine situation has temporarily altered energy economic but AJ Lucas’s share price has now stands AU$ 0.083 – up from a low of AU$ 0.03 and a far cry from the AU$ 4.61 they were trading at 15 years ago.

It looks as though the long term future doesn’t look any more promising for fracking with futures spot prices not far above what they were during the 2010s.