Burnett: Fracking reverses decline in U.S. energy production

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

Source: Austin American-Stateman

In just three short years, oil production in the United States has nearly reversed a 20-year-long production decline. Since 2010, domestic oil production has increased from a low of 4.5 million barrels a day to about 7.5 million barrels a day. Since summer 2011 alone, U.S. crude production has increased 2 million barrels per day.

A few short years ago, many analysts argued that oil was nearly tapped out and America needed to plan for a post-petroleum future.

What’s changed? In a word: fracking.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, combined with technological advancements like horizontal drilling, has created something of a revolution in U.S. oil and natural gas production. By injecting a mixture of water, sand and a small amount of other additives deep underground to fracture rock formations, exploration companies are releasing isolated pockets of oil and gas trapped in the surrounding shale rock that are otherwise inaccessible.

Texas took the lead in this development as, beginning in 2002, production in North Texas’s Barnett shale exploded. From 2002 to 2010, the Barnett was the most productive source of shale gas in the U.S., and as of 2013 it produced 6.8 percent of all the natural gas produced in the U.S.

Natural gas has become the fuel of choice for base load electricity. In addition, many bus and commercial truck companies are converting their fleets to natural gas. Natural gas could not play this role without the vast reserves fracking opens up every day. Just 15 years ago, analysts predicted America had only 60 years of natural gas supplies. Today, annual natural gas consumption is much higher, yet fracking has increased estimated reserves to 100 years or more.

Fracking is also responsible for more than 30 percent of U.S. domestic oil and natural gas reserves, and the National Petroleum Council estimates that 60 percent to 80 percent of all U.S. drilling during the next decade will require fracking to remain viable.

Once again, Texas is among the leading states in fracking production, with South Texas’s Eagle Ford Shale estimated to contain upwards of 3 billion barrels of proved reserves and more than 8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Oil production in the Eagle Ford recently surpassed 1 million barrels per day.

Partly as a result of fracking, U.S. oil imports have declined to the lowest levels since the early 1980s.

The United States could increase oil and gas production even more, further reducing our need for foreign oil, if only the federal government would remove barriers to increased production and avoid erecting new ones.

President Barack Obama has bragged that under his watch “oil production has increased to the highest levels in 16 years. Natural gas production is the highest it’s been in decades.” While true, little to none of the credit is due to his policies.

Almost all of the increased oil and gas production has occurred on private or state lands. Indeed, both natural gas production on federal areas and new leases and acreage of federal lands leased have declined. According to a 2012 Energy Department study, sales of oil from federal areas fell 14 percent from 2010 to 2011, and sales of natural gas fell 9 percent. Natural gas production on federal land is declining because drillers have found natural gas reserves under several states that are cheaper to access, due partially to the increased regulatory burdens that exist on federal lands.

And, despite study after study indicating that fracking has only a relatively few, isolated, negative environmental consequences, current restrictions on offshore oil production and on public lands and in Alaska prohibit the exploration and production of billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas. Production from these reserves would increase supplies, reduce prices and imports and provide high-paying jobs to Americans.

The federal government should accept the mountain of evidence that fracking is largely safe, and it should streamline the permitting and leasing process on public lands — leaving regulations on private land to the states — in order to reap the fiscal, economic and energy bounty of fracking. If problems become manifest, regulations can be tailored as narrowly as needed to address issues relevant to specific geographic sites.