This interesting recent Nature News Feature caught my eye:
Researchers at the University of Texas recently conducted a study of the reserve size of the four most productive US shale gas formations, and came up with a much more pessimistic result than EIA and industry estimates. According to Nature, the major methodological advancement in the new study was to increase the spatial resolution of analysis from county-scale down to to 1-square-mile pixels. Since the most productive areas of a formation are the most profitable to extract and thus tend to get tapped first, extrapolating that performance across the rest of the landscape leads to systemic over-estimation of the resource; higher-resolution analysis is required to distinguish the productive from the marginal areas and get an accurate view of total formation productivity. This really piqued my interest- my own research applies a similar idea to bioenergy crop production, where extrapolating yield results from prime farmlands on university research farms uniformly across landscapes with lots of marginal land may be equally problematic.
A couple of other tie-ins to the bioenergy world:
- Note that the UT study leader has been active in the area of ethanol lifeyclce assessment in the past, collaborating with Cornell’s Dr. David Pimentel on some early, pessimistic studies (e.g. here) that are now considered well outside the mainstream bioenergy LCA thought (for example, see this prominent meta-analysis)
- I can’t help but wonder if the wide-scale adoption of NG power plants coupled with the future feedstock price instability the article suggests might create a market opportunity for synthetic renewable gas from biomass gasification…
Estimating fossil fuel reserves is a tough game littered with overly-pessemistic estimates of ‘peak oil’ and ‘peak gas’, so I’m wary of reading too much into any one study. Still, wherever someone uses a more sophisticated approach and gets a different result, it’s worth paying attention.
CORRECTION (3/26/15)- In the first ‘bioenergy tie-in’ point above, the researcher with crossover in bioenergy LCA (Tad Patzek) was a contributor to the new reserve estimates, but authors Tinker and Ikonnikova were the study leads. Thanks to author Mason Inman for bringing this to our attention!