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The Frack Lab

Reported by Mason Inman

The US “shale revolution” has taken off in recent years. But journalists are largely avoiding one crucial, tough question: How long will the boom last? Back me, and I’ll get past the hype around shale by delving deeply into the data.

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★ DOUBLE YOUR IMPACT ★ A backer will match every dollar you pledge, up to $5,000 in total.

Wow! 100% funded! Let’s keep this going.

Thanks to your support, The Frack Lab has reached its funding goal—with a week to spare! That means the project is a go, and I’ll start posting articles in August. I’m now posting “stretch goals”—and with more funding I’ll be able to do more reporting, travel to conferences, even write an eBook.

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With another $2,500 in support on top of my target:

I can write more posts, get access to more data (such as the $295 Potential Gas Committee report), and explain more of my methods, such as how to use Python for web scraping and data wrangling. I’ll also post select graphs on Flickr and WellWiki under a Creative Commons license so others can re-use them.

With another $5,000 in support:

I can make reporting trips to talk with experts and attend energy conferences.

(I just got back from a very fruitful trip to D.C. where I went to the Energy Information Administration’s annual conference and spent a few hours talking with one of their researchers to understand how they make their estimates and forecasts for shale gas and oil.)

And with another $10,000:

I’ll have the time to write an eBook that covers what I’ve found by digging through the data on fracking—and all Frack Lab backers will get a free copy of the book once it’s available.

I’m also providing new reward levels for current and future subscribers.

At the $500 level you can cover a plane ticket to help fund reporting trips and at the $3,000 level you can fund the publication of an eBook which sums up my reporting this past year, along with a year’s subscription and an honorable mention in the acknowledgements!

When you subscribe to me, you’ll get:

✓ In-depth, data-driven pieces every other week.

✓ Shorter posts more frequently that give updates on shale gas and oil, and put them in the larger context of energy markets, for a total of at least one post each week.

✓ Back me during July, and your pledge will get doubled, with matching funds from donors. (So I’ll get much more backing if you sign up for a 3- or 6-month subscription.)

✓ Access to every story, by every writer on Beacon.

A so-called revolution

We’re supposed to be in the midst of a shale revolution, according to the petroleum industry, energy pundits, and the federal government.

But to me, it’s not a revolution. It’s a last-ditch effort to scrape the bottom of the barrel. It’s clinging to old energy sources, rather than making a transition to renewable energy.

This boom has been incredibly hyped, being “hailed as a solution to nearly every energy issue,” as I wrote in a recent book review in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Abundant natural gas could fuel our cars instead of oil, reindustrialize our nation with new steel and plastics factories, and replace coal, reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. We could export the gas and oil to make more money, create jobs and boost the economy. We could cut reliance on the Middle East. We could use exports to punish Russia, while helping our allies in Europe and Asia. We could achieve the Holy Grail of energy independence.

Or so shale boosters say.

To understand what’s at stake, we have to ask a crucial question—one journalists have largely avoided:

How long will the boom last?

Back me, and I’ll get past the hype around shale by delving deeply into the data to get a better idea of the potential in shale gas and oil.

I’ll draw on my experience covering climate and energy for the past several years, for outlets including Scientific American and National Geographic News, Science and the San Francisco Chronicle. Also, I got my bachelor’s in physics and worked in the biotech industry, so number crunching and big data sets are second nature for me.

On Beacon, I’ll post at least once a week, using data sets I’ve assembled to provide hard facts. Help me do the in-depth reporting required to get the stories on shale that others aren’t telling.

The Frack Lab

A recent article I wrote for Scientific American, “It’s Frack, Baby, Frack, as Conventional Gas Drilling Declines,” is just a taste of what I’ll post on Beacon.

I’ll delve into raw data on fracked oil and gas wells that I’ve gathered from state and federal databases (like the more than 10,000 webpages I scraped to assemble monthly oil production stats for every well in North Dakota’s Bakken shale oil formation).

I’ll use this kind of data to make maps—like the one below of thousands of oil wells in North Dakota’s Bakken formation, the blue lines showing the horizontal portion of each well:

I’ll also make graphs, like this one of U.S. natural gas production that shows shale gas is now half of all the gas the nation produces: Shale-v-nonshale_v4.png

And I’ll keep digging through technical appendices to uncover the basis for the government’s forecasts.

Even serious science publications aren’t delving into the data much. A recent 12-page special news section in Science, the nation’s top scientific journal, hailed the “Gas Revolution.” But on the outlook for supplies, it simply showed a government forecast that shale gas production would soar for decades to come, and said this:

Analysts continue to debate just how much shale gas is really out there—and how quickly the current boom could turn bust. For the moment, any downturn seems distant…. One thing is clear: The shale gas revolution is still in its infancy, with plenty of growing pains ahead.

It was a strange way of putting it. Essentially: “There’s debate, but we know the answer: There’s plenty, don’t worry.”

The rise of shale has led some—like a recent editorial in the Financial Times—to declare the “death of peak oil.”

It reminds me of that Mark Twain line:

“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

These are fossil fuels we’re talking about, after all. There are limits, and I’ll dig into data to get a better idea of what these limits are.

I’ll lay out the assumptions underlying forecasts for various shale plays, including the area covered, the spacing between wells, the estimated ultimate recovery (EUR) per well, and more.

Some questions I’m planning to tackle include:

✓ Some shale regions, including Texas’s Barnett and Louisiana’s Haynesville, have seen significant declines in production. The EIA forecasts these will both see significant revivals—but how likely is this?

✓ In North Dakota’s Bakken shale, companies are trying to pack wells in much tighter, running pilot projects for “downspacing.” How are those wells performing?

✓ How does the U.S. Energy Information Administration generate its resource estimates and forecasts for shale gas and shale oil? Have they built in optimistic assumptions?

Thanks for your support.

Back this project →

I couldn't have done it without you!

July 24 at 10:20 pm

Hi everyone,

Thanks to your amazing support, The Frack Lab has reached its funding goal—with a week to spare! That means the project is a go, and I’ll start posting articles in August. I can’t wait to share my work with you.

I’m now posting “stretch goals”—and with more funding I’ll be able to do more reporting, travel to conferences, even write an eBook. I’ve also put up new reward levels, including at the $500 level, which will cover the cost of a plane trip to a national conference.

Keep sharing the project page when you get a chance - with friends and family members who might want to be future Frack Lab backers.

Here’s the link to the project page with more information: http://www.beaconreader.com/projects/the-frack-lab

Thanks for all the generous support. I wouldn’t be here without you.

Mason


Just 9 days left!

July 21 at 11:44 pm

Hello Frack Lab backers,

The Frack Lab has nearly reached its funding goal, now at 89% with nine days to go in the campaign—thanks to the support from you and the other 54 backers. I couldn’t do it without you!

If you know of others who might be interested in subscribing to this project, please forward on a message to them—and help me reach the funding goal.

http://www.beaconreader.com/projects/the-frack-lab

Assuming the project reaches the goal—and I’m confident it will—I’ll start posting articles in August, and you’ll get an email each time a new article is available, about once a week.

Thanks again,

Mason


We are approaching halfway there!

July 8 at 6:56 pm

Hello Frack Lab backers,

The Frack Lab has gotten off to a great start, passing 40% of the goal during the first week. I truly appreciate all the support and kind words.

But my project still needs many more supporters!

To continue the campaign’s momentum, it would help me so much if you could share the page with others who might be interested—friends, colleagues, and more. A little help goes a long way and the more you share, the more people can find out about The Frack Lab.

Here’s the link: http://www.beaconreader.com/projects/the-frack-lab

I’ll be in touch throughout this month and I can’t wait to share my work with you!

Best,

Mason


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Mason Inman BIOGRAPHY

I’m an award-winning freelance journalist who has covered everything from archaeology to cosmology. For the past several years I’ve focused on climate and energy issues, writing for Scientific American, National Geographic News, Science, Economist.com, the San Francisco Chronicle, and other publications.

In 2008-09, I was a Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism, doing on-the-ground reporting from Bangladesh about efforts to adapt to climate change—and my work won the 2010 IUCN-Reuters Media Award for Excellence in Environmental Reporting for the top story published in North America.

I’m also the author of the forthcoming book “The Oracle of Oil” (W.W. Norton, 2015), the first biography of maverick geologist M. King Hubbert. During the course of writing my book, I learned an enormous amount about the petroleum industry, and the history of oil and gas forecasts over the past century.

But just in the past several months I’ve been able to open up a new chapter in my reporting. I’ve picked up additional skills—with a lot of help from my wife, Sarah Bird (@birdsarah), who’s a computer programmer. I’ve learned some basic Python, really helpful for web scraping and working with large data sets, and CSS for creating maps. Together we’re working with Javascript and D3 to create animated maps. Though I’ve long worked with data, ever since my days doing research in physics labs as an undergrad nearly 20 years ago, now I feel I can truly call myself a data journalist.

To see more of the types of issues I’ll cover, see my Twitter feed: @masoninman

[Photo credit: Andy Butkaj (@andybutkaj), Flickr]

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