Is there an exaggerated quality to the extraordinary projections and tens of billions of dollars pouring into shale gas, the newly available fuel that has shaken up markets and geopolitics? The answer is yes -- estimates for global shale gas reserves and future production are all but certainly over the top; likewise, the world's major energy companies -- ExxonMobil, Shell, Total, Sinopec, Statoil, and so on -- have probably committed excessive sums to this new source of energy.
Are we surprised? The answer is no -- students of hydrocarbon bonanzas know that, going back to the 19th-century frenzies of Baku and Pennsylvania, reserve assertions in the heat of the boom are not reliable. Such outbreaks of exuberance, regardless of whether fundamentally legitimate, include con artists (hence suckers), cooked books (more suckers), and out-and-out fraud (ditto). In the Caspian era of the 1990s, for instance, the Clinton administration, relying on lobbying reports from Amoco, justified a supercharged policy effort with estimates of 200 billion barrels of oil; the actual figure as of today is closer to 50 billion barrels. Yet companies and individual investors proceed anyway because they do not want to potentially miss out.
Which is what makes one puzzled by the war-like reaction to two long, ambitious, but fairly run-of-the-mill pieces in the New York Times ("Insiders Sound an Alarm Amid a Natural Gas Rush" and "Behind Veneer, Doubt on Future of Natural Gas") by Ian Urbina. In 5,300 words, plus a splash of leaked memos and emails, Urbina reports that U.S. natural gas prices are too low to justify much of the drilling and that companies have been possibly permitted by the Securities and Exchange Commission to overstate their gas reserves (the latter by far the best of the three pieces). Today, Urbina adds a piece with federal lawmakers calling for an investigation.
Steve LeVine is the author of The Oil and the Glory and a longtime foreign correspondent.