COLUMN-Shale not immune to toxic energy politics-Campbell

Mon Apr 2, 2012 10:57am EDT

By Robert Campbell

NEW YORK, April 2 (Reuters) - Any optimistic view of oil and gas supplies in the wake of the shale revolution must be tempered by an acceptance that the politics that crimped conventional energy production are not going away any time soon.

The shale revolution in the United States is the basis for much optimism. Just a few years ago expert opinion was that the country was on track to become a major importer of natural gas, probably from the Middle East.

Now its gas industry is weathering a crisis as a boom in local shale gas production has taken gas prices down to 10-year lows. Shale oil has also disrupted the local industry and triggered a renaissance in onshore production.

But so far this phenomenon has proven difficult to export, even though significant known, technically recoverable shale gas resources are scattered worldwide.

Take the case of Argentina, home to the third largest known, technically recoverable shale gas resource in the world, according to a 2011 U.S. government study.

Although YPF, the privatized former state oil company and top acreage holder in Argentina, has been trumpeting its potentially mammoth shale energy resources, its shares are down more than 20 percent from their January high.

Look no further than local politics for the explanation. An increasingly messy fight with the government over its investment record has led to threats that YPF could lose its concessions or even face renationalization.

At the root of the dispute is Argentina's slumping energy output, which is forcing the country to spend billions on imports of diesel fuel and liquefied natural gas to keep the lights on.

Crude oil output fell 5.9 percent in 2011, while natural gas production declined 3.4 percent, according to the Argentine Institute of Petroleum and Gas.

Energy companies blame Argentina's system of price caps on local oil and gas production that they say has cut the profitability of investments in existing fields.

Investors like ExxonMobil are keen to exploit shale deposits in their concessions but are wary of vague government policies that cloud potential returns on investment.

CHINA, FRANCE, MEXICO

Or take the cases of France and Mexico.

France is believed to have 180 trillion cubic feet of recoverable shale gas, roughly a fifth of the resources of the United States, but fears over groundwater contamination have put the resource off limits.

The decision has forced supermajor Total, one of the most enthusiastic shale oil and gas investors, to forgo hugely promising deposits in its own backyard.

Mexico is also believed to have massive shale reserves, not only of gas, but also oil. The prolific Eagle Ford trend in Texas extends across the border into Mexico, but little is being done to exploit the resource.

Aside from a few test wells, Mexico has shown little enthusiasm for shale gas development. Given tight restrictions on the use of private capital in the oil and gas industry, state oil monopoly Pemex has preferred to direct its investment budget at oil prospects and import gas from Texas to meet local demand.

What is significant about these three cases is that Mexico, France and Argentina together hold about one-quarter of the world's technically recoverable shale gas identified in the 2011 U.S. study. And for the most part these resources are constrained not by geology and markets, but by local politics.

Indeed, shale oil and gas reservoirs may be found worldwide but their successful exploitation is by and large a North American phenomenon.

And there are a number of reasons to think shale may remain a mainly North American phenomenon for a while.

Here it is worthwhile revisiting some of the unique reasons why this has happened:

A stable (for the most part) regulatory regime, a dynamic industry mostly made up of hundreds of small, entrepreneurial firms, and well-developed markets both for energy products and capital are key features of the North American energy industry.

Nowhere else in the world do these factors co-exist with large resource bases.

Shale oil and gas may yet go global, but the same hurdles that have hindered conventional oil and gas development remain.

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