Global power brokers 'alarmed' as US has a fracking good time
A few years ago when you headed from Bismarck in central North Dakota up towards Williston in the state's north-west it might have seemed you were heading from nowhere to nothing. You'd drive on empty roads by the badlands of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park and if you missed the farming town of 14,000 you would hit Canada a few hours later.
Not any more. Williston is at the epicentre of a US oil and gas boom sparked by fracking technology that some economists believe will arrest America's alleged decline and which the White House believes has already fundamentally altered global geopolitics in America's favour.
Now the traffic starts to snarl
80 kilometres out of town. The roads are crumbling under the weight of prime movers and construction and drilling vehicles and when you hit a rail crossing you can sit for 10 minutes while a laden goods train groans by.
On the rolling fields around town "man camps" have sprung up to house the wildcatters who have flocked in from around the world and the hills are marked by nodding pump jacks and towering drilling rigs boring new holes into the pasture.
The new McDonald's pays a $300 sign-on fee to get workers, according to Businessweek and there is a rumour that the shelf stackers at the Walmart are making $70,000 a year. A newly arrived merchant banker I met in one of the town's two thriving strip joints told me he was paying a chef in a restaurant he had recently bought $US120,000 ($130,700) a year, a sum unimaginable in most American cities.
The current estimate is that 33,000 people now live in Williston, though some put the figure as high as 60,000. "Realistically, no one knows for sure," the Williston mayor, Ward Koeser, told the "Oil Patch Dispatch".
At night the black expanse is punctuated by hissing gas flares. There is so much gas about these days - and so little infrastructure to move it - that it is more economical, at many wells, to burn it off as the oil is sucked into tanks.
When you get into town your GPS fails because so many new streets have yet to be mapped. Homes and commercial buildings are being thrown up wherever there is space, 2000 to 3000 a year at last estimate - but there are never enough beds to go around.
At a dive bar called Cattails on the main road, Drew Hendrickson from Georgia takes $200 in tips on a quiet night just serving drinks and $700 on a busy Friday or Saturday.
The streets and the new strip malls are choked with late-model pick-up trucks decked out with custom spray jobs, raised suspension and hair-curling stereo systems.
The source of Williston's new wealth lies a little over three kilometres underground in a formation of layers of shale known as the Bakken that spreads for almost half a million square kilometres across North and South Dakota, west to Montana and north into parts of southern Canada. In and between those layers of shale lie billions of barrels of oil mixed with natural gas, methane and other petroleums.
People have been drilling for the stuff for decades, but due to the shale the wells rapidly ran dry. All that changed when a man called George Mitchell worked out how to drill around corners. If you imagine the oil in the layers of shale as the cream in an Oreo cookie, Mitchell, a Texas oilman, perfected a technique of drilling down into the mineral, turning the drill sideways, and drilling along the layer of cream.
He then worked out how to combine horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Once the well is drilled massive amounts of a water and chemical cocktail are forced into the hole to break the rock and release the minerals.The cocktail includes acids to protect the steal pipes, biocides to kill bacteria, sand or tiny ceramic balls known as proppant to keep the hairline cracks open once the water pressure recedes and, gels and lubricants to carry the proppant into place.
"Mr Mitchell spent 10 years and $6 million to crack the problem [surely the best-spent development money in the history of gas]. Everyone, he said, told him he was just wasting his time and money," The Economist wrote last year.
Around Williston the fracking crews are a common sight. Rows of truck-borne generators line up on the well pads to create the massive water pressure needed to fracture the rock, and queues of tankers line the roads to truck the chemical cocktail in and out of the drilling sites.
Once the fracking is complete the crews move on to the next well, a pump jack is installed and site returns to something like normal but for the oil tankers and the flares and the nodding jacks, the baffled-looking cattle and the broken rock far below releasing its ancient oil and gas.
Fracking and horizontal drilling technology have improved so fast over the past decade the rush has spread across the Bakken, while dormant oil fields in Texas have sprung back to life. Pennsylvania's natural gas fields are booming and new rushes are expected in California, West Virginia and Ohio.
Due to fracking there is now so much as-yet untapped oil and gas in the US that The Wall Street Journal declared the nation last year to be Saudi America.
In April, President Obama's then national security adviser, Tom Donilon, spoke at the launch of Columbia University's Centre on Global Energy Policy in Manhattan.
He began by noting that it was "a bit unusual for a national security adviser to address an energy conference like this one", explaining that energy was "profoundly" linked to America's national security, and that America had reached an "inflection point" in its energy development.
"When President Obama took office, the energy picture looked decidedly different than it does today. Indeed, forecasters said that the US would need to double its imports of liquefied natural gas [LNG] over the next five years.
"There was renewed talk of 'peak oil'. Nearly every prediction about our energy future made five years ago has been turned on its head. US innovation and technology are allowing us to tap unconventional energy resources," he said, a reference to fracked oil and gas.
"In 2005, 60 per cent of US oil was imported. Today the number is 40 per cent and falling - a dramatic move towards fulfilling the President's goal of cutting our oil imports in half by 2020, while the US had become the top natural gas producer in the world." He noted the domestic price of natural gas has dropped from more than $13 per million Btu in 2008 to about $4 today.
According to Daniel Yergin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the book The Prize about the energy revolution, the massive slump in energy prices in the US is the first matter raised with him when he attends conferences in Europe and Asia, where gas prices are now up to four times higher.
"European industry is not just concerned, they are alarmed," he said. Yergin estimates that so far 1.3 million jobs have been created not only from harnessing the resources, but through the resurgence of American manufacturing in energy intensive industries such as fertiliser and steel.
Yergin, who recently updated his findings in a new book, The Quest, says America will soon be a significant competitor to Australia in the export of liquefied natural gas.
His analysis is echoed in a recent Deloitte report that projects Australia will soon become the largest LNG exporter in the world, but that the US competition will reduce Australian export volumes to Europe by more than 10 per cent. Exports to Asia would be less affected due to proximity to big Asian markets.
A US Government Accountability Office report into the amount of oil underneath Utah and neighbouring states estimates there is about 3 trillion barrels, of which about half is now recoverable with the new technology or, in the words of the report, "about equal to the entire world's proven oil reserves".
"In the past 100 years - in all of human history - we have consumed 1 trillion barrels of oil. There are several times that much here," said Roger Day, vice-president for operations for American Shale Oil, told ABC News.
With North America now awash in oil and natural gas, terminals built for importing energy are being retrofitted for export. On the Pacific coast, the Jordan Cove LNG facility in Coos Bay, Oregon, was built in 2003 to import LNG, but is now being refitted for export. In Louisiana, Cheniere Energy is refitting an import terminal to export and hopes to build another one on the Texas coast by 2017 or 2018.
A recent report by Harvard's Kennedy School of Government predicted that by 2020 all of America's oil could be produced either domestically or within the western hemisphere, ending the US dependency on the Middle East. In November the International Energy Agency predicted America would be energy independent by 2035.
Already the impacts of the power shift are being felt, say Donilon and Yergin, particularly in efforts to halt Iran's nuclear program.
"The United States engaged in tireless diplomacy to persuade consuming nations to end or significantly reduce their consumption of Iranian oil while emphasising to suppliers the importance of keeping the world oil market stable and well supplied," Donilon said in his speech at Columbia.
"The substantial increase in oil production in the United States and elsewhere meant that international sanctions and US and allied efforts could remove over 1 million barrels per day of Iranian oil while minimising the burdens on the rest of the world. And the same dynamic was at work in Libya in 2011 and in Syria today."
More broadly, Donilon said, it is an "iron law of history" that a nation's political and military primacy depends on its economic vitality. "Our energy boom has proven to be an important driver for our economic recovery - boosting jobs, economic activity, and government revenues. Take the example of North Dakota, where unemployment has dropped to near 3 per cent, the lowest in the country, and the state has a $3.8 billion budget surplus, largely due to increased unconventional gas and oil production in the state."
In testimony before a congressional committee in February, Yergin said the new energy boom added $62 billion to federal and state government revenues in 2012, "a number that we project could rise to about $113 billion by 2020".
Michael Klare, the professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, said that "just a few years ago, most analysts, myself included, were predicting a continuing decline in US oil and gas output, resulting in greater reliance on imported supplies and diminished US geopolitical clout. Now all those predictions seem obsolete."
He says the boom "allows Washington to liberate itself from long-standing ties to Middle Eastern oil despots and to adopt a more free-wheeling and assertive stance in world affairs". It was a factor in the Obama administration's pivot to Asia, which is contingent on a partial disengagement with the Middle East.
His optimism about the boom is echoed on Williston's teeming streets, where it can be hard to find people to criticise the oil and gas industry.
Though some complain about the pressure on local infrastructure and others worry about an increase in crime associated with the sudden influx of transitory male workers, many are thrilled to find themselves at the centre of a rush.
"Some say we are making Williston a shithole," says one young woman who grew up and left Williston only to return with the boom. "But Williston was always a shithole, now it is just a bigger shithole with more money."
But fracking is attracting significant opposition in more heavily populated areas such as Pennsylvania.
Concern over fracking in that area has made Gasland and Gasland 2, by filmmaker Josh Fox, among the most prominent documentaries of recent years. The films have been widely praised by critics and cited by anti-fracking activists, though some experts question their science.
Either way, no one disputes that fracking uses vast amounts of water, which is necessarily polluted by the process. There is debate over its impact on how water tables are affected by the broken rock and some even argue - without significant evidence so far - that it is to blame for causing earthquakes.
Donilon notes that America's energy-related greenhouse gas emissions have fallen to 1994 levels partly because of the switch from coal to natural gas in power production facilitated in part by fracking, but even this is not an unalloyed environmental good. While LNG is cleaner than coal, the methane that can be released by fracking is a terribly potent greenhouse gas, trapping 20 times as much heat as carbon dioxide.
With increasing access to fossil fuels the impact of the fracking revolution on global warming could be catastrophic argues environmentalist Bill McKibben. "We need a dramatic shift off carbon-based fuel: coal, oil and also gas," he told the Associated Press. "Natural gas provides at best a kind of fad diet, where a dangerously overweight patient loses a few pounds and then their weight stabilises; instead, we need at this point a crash diet."