If the shale boom is a Ponzi, the price of gas, which has collapsed over the past couple of years, will rise again.

From: (name deleted) @chk.com

Date: Tue, May 3, 2011 at 3:35 PM

Subject: RE: FW: Fayetteville shale (over) optimism?

T: (name deleted) @gmail.com

I agree with this guy’s assessment. This is one of the four shales I worked at (deleted) and while you had some wells that had already cum’d over 2-3 BCF in their first year or two they were far apart and usually were overlying structure.

This shale is one of the more difficult shales in the country to work. It is complex structurally and sequence stratigraphically with target zones of only 20-25′. There is a reason we sold all of our Fayetville (sic) assets to BHP (the first shale we have ever sold all of our assets in).


THIS little gem was buried in a treasure trove of emails discovered under freedom of information requests by The New York Times. The guts of it is that BHP seems to have been hoodwinked out of a cool $4.75 billion. It bought the Fayetteville asset from the cunning Chesapeake early last year and, if the view of this Chesapeake executive is correct, BHP has been the victim of a very slick dudding.

A company spokesman put a brave face on things yesterday: ”BHP Billiton did not rely on Chesapeake’s or Petrohawk’s company reserves figures in estimating value for its acquisitions. We conducted our own independent analysis to determine not only total proved reserves, but, as important, the total unproved resource base we were purchasing in both transactions, which is the largest part of the value of the properties.”

They were never going to throw their hands in the air and say, ‘shucks, you’ve got us there’, but the odd 2-3 BCF well does not a ”world-class, long-life, low-cost, resource”, as BHP put it, make.

For those not au fait with the glamorous world of shale gas, note that 1 billion cubic feet (BCF) of cumulative production from a well equals roughly 1 million times the gas price in revenue. The gas price is now $2.80.

A well costs $6 million to $7 million to drill, so $2.8 million in revenue is a dismal failure. And the odd 2-3BCF well is a marginal proposition at current gas prices. On the other hand, 5BCF cumulative production is considered to be a good well, and a darn fine well at a higher gas price. And Petrohawk, incidentally, is the other US asset swooped upon by BHP last year, for which it is now suffering buyer’s remorse: having splashed $15 billion on something now bleeding $4 million a week. In its defence it could hardly have been expected to predict the rout in gas prices.

Yet there is a more serious matter at stake. The email above is one of thousands of documents sourced by the Times in an investigation into the economics of shale gas. The question the Times is trying to answer is whether Chesapeake and other shale oil plays are part of an elaborate $15 billion ”Ponzi scheme”; their words, not ours.

The question is important because the answer goes to whether the US will remain a low energy cost country or become a high energy cost country again. And the implications for Australia, let alone BHP, loom large. LNG exports to the US, for instance, are uneconomic at present prices. If the price remains low in North America the US will become an energy exporter.

If the shale boom is a Ponzi, the price of gas, which has collapsed over the past couple of years – it has bounced off its recent lows of $2 but remains a far cry from its $8-plus peak – will rise again.

If it is not a Ponzi, then America will remain a low energy cost country. The economic, let alone geopolitical and environmental ramifications, are immense.