They threw a fracking party in Illinois, and hardly anyone showed up.
More precisely, two months after the state completed a long regulatory process and opened the door to hydraulic fracturing, only one company applied. The state hired 36 employees and five lawyers to handle the expected rush of applicants, reported the Chicago Tribune, “for work that doesn’t exist.”
This after a land rush by energy companies in Southern Illinois that saw them buy tens of thousands of acres anticipating a North Dakota-style energy boom that would create 10,000 jobs.
The disinterest is attributed to the sharp decline in oil and gas prices globally, which makes fracking unprofitable — at best a break-even proposition, at worst a big money-loser.
“Smart people don’t invest in things that break-even,” said energy expert Arthur Berman in Oilprice.com. “I mean, why should I take a risk to make no money on an energy company when I can invest in a variable annuity or a REIT that has almost no risk that will pay me a reasonable margin? Oil prices need to be around $90 to attract investment capital. So, are companies OK at current oil prices? Hell no! They are dying at these prices.
Oil prices these days are in the $49 range for Brent crude, the global benchmark, and $47 a barrel for West Texas intermediate crude, the U.S. benchmark — 30 percent and 40 precent lower, respectively, than the prices two months ago, according to Reuters.
Anti-fracking groups can’t contain their glee. Annette McMichael, a spokesman for Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment, told the Associated Press her group “believed all along the price of oil is not going to be sustainable, and once it fell the fossil fuel industry would be leaving Illinois — or at least putting hydraulic fracturing on hold. … We certainly hope oil prices stay depressed for 2015, which is a good possibility.”
But maybe Southern Illinois should be grateful. North Dakota became the Saudi Arabia of North America thanks to fracking over the past few years — and now may go bust.
Earlier this month, the state reported that 3 million gallons of potentially toxic saltwater leaked from a western North Dakota pipeline into a creek that feeds the Missouri River, the largest spill of its kind in the state’s history, Reuters reported.
Saltwater is a byproduct of hydraulic fracturing. It’s filled with brine, and can contain petroleum and metal filings picked up during the fracking process, Reuters said.
New York banned fracking entirely in December because of “significant uncertainties about the kinds of adverse health outcomes potential risks to public health.”
North Dakota led the nation in population growth in the past five years, with a 12 percent increase. And the towns at the heart of the Bakken Formation — where the shale is being tapped — saw dramatic growth. They’ve yet to catch up with infrastructure, schools, water treatment plants, policing and all the rest.
Mayor Brent Sanford of Watford City, N.D., told CNN that in 2000, when his daughter was born, there were only three other children born in the county that same year. Now, there are 90 children in her class. “Half the students are living in RVs,” he said.
Last week, Sanford and a group of mayors and county commissioners trooped to Bismarck to seek what they call “surge funding” to build infrastructure. While the governor and the legislature are talking about up to $1.1 billion dollars, there are already concerns about a revenue shortfall that could jeopardize funding, thanks to an expected decline in taxes paid by the energy companies.
When oil prices get this low, rigs go offine — and so does the money. There were 156 rigs drillling in January compared with 183 in December compared with 193 a year ago, according to the Tribune and Valleynewslive.
“My prediction is we’re down to 50 rigs by June,” said Jim Arthaud, chief executive of MBI Energy Services in Belfield, N.D., told CNN.
The word in fracking country — and lots of other places — is that Saudi Arabia is keeping prices low in order to put fracking in its place: out-of-business. The Saudis don’t put it that way. They talk about preserving their market share.
The layoffs have already begun.
Big energy services companies Schlumberger, Halliburton and Baker Hughes all announced so-far modest job cuts.
“They said things aren’t good, that oil prices are low, and they aren’t going to be drilling as many wells,” John Roberts, recently laid off as a crew van driver for Schlumberger, told CNN. “They gave me 24 hours to leave my house.” He’s sleeping on a friend’s couch with his belongings in his car.
As if all this bad news weren’t enough, Kansas, Ohio and Texas have been reporting scores of small earthquakes — up to three on the Richter scale — with increasing scientific evidence that they are linked to fracking.
Not to worry, says the fracking industry. “For reference,” explains Energyfromshale.com, “a magnitude three earthquake is described by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) as causing ‘vibrations similar to the passing of a truck.’ ”
Focus, it urges, on “the good news” about fracking: It “supports 2.1 million American jobs and promises a more energy-secure future for our country.”