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Two articles, two stories

August 25, 2011

Earlier this week, a day apart, two major American newspapers published two very different articles. Their common subject was the estimate of the amount of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale. The New York Times headline read, “U.S. Geologists Sharply Cut Estimate of Shale Gas,” while the Wall Street Journal headline read, “USGS boosts amount of shale gas reserves.” What is going on, and who is right?

The USGS (The United States Geological Survey) issued a press release on August 23rd that estimated the amount of recoverable natural gas in the Marcellus shale to be 84 tcf (tcf stands for trillion cubic feet, a standard unit of measurement for natural gas in the ground) This is the mid-point of the the range of gas they estimate is probably recoverable. On the low end, they estimate with 95% confidence that there is at least 43 tcf recoverable natural gas in the Marcellus; on the high end, there is a 5% probability that there is as much as 144.1 tcf recoverable gas. For perspective, New York State uses a total of 1.1 tcf of natural gas in a year.

This new estimate is higher than USGS’s previous estimate of 2 tcf recoverable gas in 2002. The increase was due to new geologic and engineering data and new technology. The amounts they give are for the volume of gas that is technically recoverable – using available technology and without regard for where the gas is, even if it is actually inaccessible to drillers because of surface conditions or policy.

If the new estimate is higher, why did the New York Times article claim it was a drastic reduction? Academic, industry, and government sources have also estimated the amount of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale over the last several years. Geologists Terry Engelder and Gary Lash, from Penn State and SUNY Fredonia, respectively, estimated in 2008 that there were 50 tcf recoverable, an increase from the last USGS estimate in 2002. Industry and government estimates over the past few years have been higher still. In 2008, Chesapeake Energy estimated that 363 tcf were recoverable. The Energy Information Administration’s latest estimate was 410 tcf, though they will be revising it down in light of the new USGS information. The new USGS estimate is lower than the industry and government estimates.

What’s going on here?  Both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have been criticised for their coverage of Marcellus Shale drilling. The New York Times has been criticised by those in favor of gas drilling, including industry, and the Wall Street Journal has been criticised by those opposed to drilling. The authors of these two articles took the same press release and wrote articles with totally different slants and contradictory headlines depending upon which context details they chose to include or ignore. The WSJ ignored the industry and government estimates that were 3-5 times higher than the current USGS estimate. The NYT primarily covered the discrepancy between industry and EIA estimates and the current USGS estimate, though they do mention the 2002 USGS estimate. Make sure you’re reading about this issue from a variety of sources, otherwise you may not get a complete picture.

Speaking of information, Marcellus Issues # 4 and 5, on NORM and Jointing and Fracturing in the Marcellus Shale are now posted online.

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