Me thinks we all protest too much

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The Public Editor of the New York Times publicly chastised the National Editor for a story implying shale gas is a bubble. Industry and many others were outraged by the original article.  The National Editor staunchly defended by environmentalists, ‘stands by every word’.  

I find it all bemusing.  If shale gas really is a bubble then opponents’ work is done.  In a bubble case, excess natural gas will run out shortly, the investment markets will punish the natural gas companies, who in any case will have already run out of gas (pun intended).  Just when opponents should be opening a Bud Light, they seem a little too anxious to sound alarm bells to protect a group they haven’t shown much interest in before – private sector investors. 

In addition it’s a pretty strange bubble.  The stock prices of natural gas companies look more like the prices at Walmart.  Anything that convinces investors that there is less gas than forecast and the price will go up is just what these lagging stocks need.  Yet industry is outraged by the suggestion. 

At the risk of breaking ranks with my colleagues I think the New York Times makes the important point that shale gas is not that easy.  

Based on mature shale plays like the Barnett, Woodford and Fayetteville, typically only about 15% of the acreage ends up being developed commercially.  A fraction of that represents the sweet spots.  Sweet spots are where the superior profits are made and the trick is to find them before your competitors do. 

The proliferation of technically recoverable resource reports (verses commercially recoverable reserves) may foster a perception by some that all prospective shale gas land has commercially recoverable gas and that top decile wells will be achieved consistently and by all companies.  Of course this is just wrong.  Today in the Barnett, the most mature successful shale play of all, there is more variability of results than ten years ago.  (see this chart published by QEC since 2009 to demonstrate the risks and variability of shale gas).  Southwestern has said for sometime that the top wells have to pay for the bottom wells plus the profit.  Due to the learning curve, the top wells, if they come at all, come towards the end, not the beginning.  Thus the large up front investment to find out if there will be sweet spots, is high risk and takes nerve over several years. 

In Quebec over a dozen companies hold over 5 million acres for the Utica. All of them including Questerre, hold high hopes their acreage will be proven successful and are not afraid to say so.  However, until the pilot drilling is done no one is sure where those sweet spots are because mother nature is not 100% predictable.  

At Questerre we assume in the event of success about 15% of the land or 800,000 acres gets developed.  The SECOR economic impact study assumed about half of that meaning there is only a 5% to 15% chance a particular piece of land will be developed in the end.  If we are right, the majority of the companies and their shareholders will be disappointed.  

That’s assuming shareholders can be more disappointed than they already are.