Fracking for our energy: A legacy of decline

In the USA, the process of hydrofracturing (fracking) for oil and gas has produced astounding results in terms of energy produced per day from the major geological regions where petroleum and natural gas are extracted. These are the shale oil and gas fields. The oil coming out of fracked shales is called “tight” oil because it is tightly bound up with the rock formation, and the fracturing releases it and allows it to flow to the well head.

The chart below shows how rapidly U.S. oil production ramped up beginning at the end of 2008 when it stood at just 5 million barrels a day. At the time of this post, the Energy Information Agency is reporting U.S. daily production of 12.3 or 12.4 million barrels a day in total. Throughout this post we’ll refer to this period of January, 2009 – present as the “fracking frenzy.”


Both presidential administrations since 2008 have claimed that the USA is achieving “energy independence” or “energy dominance” because of the fracking frenzy. Leaving aside the validity of such claims for now, the main point of this post is to examine the downside of the fracking frenzy, which is reported in oil and gas reports as the “Legacy Wells Decline” or legacy decline.

Each month, the Energy Information Agency publishes a report called the Drilling Productivity Report, which will appear in a new window if you click the link. Because the report focuses on productivity in drilling new wells for oil or gas, you see in the right column a list of the seven shale fields where almost all new oil or gas is being extracted. The report doesn’t cover “conventional” oil regions, which are covered elsewhere and not the point of this post, either.

Each Drilling Productivity Report shows “New oil well production per rig,” on a timeline, and the count of rigs operating for that resource in that field. Below that chart is the topic of this post, Legacy oil production change, thousand barrels per day.

At this point let’s briefly touch on how much energy we are talking about.  This will be important in establishing how many solar-panel equivalent megawatts, gigawatts and terawatts (trillion watts) would be needed to replace the same amount of energy, if it were even feasible. In some applications, this may never be feasible.

“The U.S. Internal Revenue Service defines a BOE as equal to 5.8 million BTU.[1] (5.8×106 BTU59°F equals 6.1178632×109 J, about 6.1 GJ [HHV], or about 1.7 MWh.)
Wikipedia entry on “Barrel of Oil Equivalent.”

So, a barrel of oil gives you 5.8 mega-BTU of energy, about 6.1 Gigajoules, or in terms familiar in renewable energy discussion, 1.7 megawatt-hours of energy.

Here are the legacy-decline charts for the shale oil fields reported out by the EIA:

Summed together, these charts show that the total legacy-well decline of these five largest shale regions (Appalachia and Haynesville shales are not significant for oil, but rather natural gas) amounts to 556,000 barrels of oil per day of decline.  Or, to put it in solar-panel terms, 945,000 Megawatt-hours energy decline per day.

So, the only way for U.S. oil production to be out-running the legacy decline rate of fracked wells is for new wells to bring on production at a higher rate. Which has been happening since the fracking frenzy began, as we say in this post, with the New Year 2009.  The EIA reports each field’s “Production change” in a chart like this. Unfortunately, in the August report, the Anadarko field (Oklahoma) did not have a net gain:


How many oil rigs are there operating now (almost all in the shale regions)?

“Crude Oil Rigs in the United States decreased to 738 in September from 742 in the previous week. Crude Oil Rigs in the United States averaged 503.79 from 1987 until 2019, reaching an all time high of 1609 in October of 2014 and a record low of 98 in August of 1999.” -Recent report from Baker Hughes company.

If we “drill down” into the dominant narrative of “energy dominance” and “energy independence” being offered by the oil and gas industry and parroted out by the Cabinet-level Energy Department since the fracking frenzy began, we discover there are additional fatal flaws in this narrative, besides the legacy decline rate.

First, there is the question of what the total amount of resource being drilled and fracked actually is.  We can recall seemingly endless stories going back to about 2010 which attempted to define the size of, for example, the Bakken oil field in North Dakota. Various estimates were published, in terms of Gigabarrels (billions of barrels) the field might contain. Estimates ranged from just 4 billion, up to sky’s-the-limit billion. However, at the current rate of pumping 1.4 million barrels per day, if the rate is maintained all 365 days of the year, then we see that there is a half-gigabarrel per year being drawn down. Assuming the size of the Bakken is between 4 billion and sky’s-the-limit billion, eventually the resource will be half-depleted, which is normally called the “peak production point” in an oil field, of whatever size.

With respect to the size of the Permian Basin oil resource, it appears that in Energy Info. Agency reports, “Sky’s the Limit” appears to be the size.  In recent reports, the EIA shows the Permian region producing on a steady, upward, linear graph, amounts of oil that appear to have no upper limit. This contradicts the old concept of “Limits to Growth” which the Club of Rome attempted to introduce to Americans back in the 1970s, without success.

The oil and gas industry consultantant Art Berman is less giddy about the Permian Basin and the other major Texas shale “play,” the Eagle Ford region of south Texas. See pp 12-16 in his major presentation here:  Texas Energy Council 30th Annual Symposium,  Dallas, May 20, 2018.

Whatever the resource size of the Permian Basin, which appears to be the Great Hope of U.S. energy dominance, eventually the legacy decline of already-drilled wells will exceed the production from new wells, no matter how many new are being drilled.  On this blog, we will henceforth refer to this point in time as the “Fracking Bust,” which will mark the point of permanent U.S. fossil-fuel energy production decline.  There are not enough “conventional” (non-fracked) oil reserves remaining to the USA to be drilled and produced.  Even the ANWR reserve in Alaska would not replace for example, one million barrels a day of Bakken (North Dakota) light-tight oil once the decline rate reaches that 1 million mark.

Another aspect of the giddy claim of U.S. “energy independence” that bears debunking is the quality of the petroleum being produced. Many recent articles have been written about the U.S. fracking fields producing “the wrong kind of oil.” The oil is too light, as measured on the API specific-gravity scale. Here is a signature article briefly touching on this problem:  “America is producing the wrong kind of oil,” Bloomberg, Javier Blas, February 1, 2019. The fact that this is published on Bloomberg rather than a Leftist rant on Jacobin, or the ever-gloomy Post-Carbon Institute website, indicates that there is a problem:

Tight oil production actually makes the USA more energy-interdependent, not independent.  Likewise, it absurdifies the notion of U.S. energy dominance, since the source of the heavy crudes needed to blend with the light, tight oil to make products such as diesel fuel, jet fuel, or the heavy fuel oil used in container ship engines come from “enemy states” in OPEC.

From the viewpoint of folks trying to push the USA toward a Green New Deal and to “get off fossil fuels,” the problem of the future is what to do when the fracking bust occurs.

We discussed how 556,000 barrels per day is already lost to legacy decline rates, and the fact that this is .95 Terawatt-hours of energy equivalent per day which has declined.  That is about 344 Terawatt-hours per year, or about 1/12th of electrical-equivalent energy consumption per year for the whole USA (given as 4,000 Terawatt-hours or 4 trillion kilowatt-hours).

Total U.S. solar electricity generation for 2018 is given as 1.6% of total, or 64 Terawatt-hours annually, or .175 Terawatt-hours daily. That total is 18% of the amount of daily energy-equivalence LOST already to fracked oil wells in decline, over a 10-year span.

I think you can see the scope of the problem ahead.

Next post will examine the legacy of decline in fracked natural gas fields’ production.