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US Drillers Unleash ‘Super-Size’ Shale Gas Output

Russell Gold, The Wall Street Journal

The U.S. may have far more natural gas than anyone imagined, all reachable at a profit even with today’s bargain-basement prices.


Experimental wells in Louisiana by explorers including Comstock Resources Inc. andChesapeake Energy Inc. are proving highly lucrative thanks to modern drilling techniques and the sheer volume of fossil fuels that can be coaxed out of the ground.

The trick is applying supersize versions of the horizontal-drilling and fracking techniques that worked successfully elsewhere to an area that hasn’t seen this approach yet. The gains come from extending the lateral portions of wells by thousands of feet and pumping them full of enormous volumes of sand, chemicals and water to flush out more hydrocarbons.

So far, the impressive results have been confined to a small area in a single Louisiana parish near the Texas border. But if the approach works across the giant Haynesville Shale, which spans 120 miles across both states, the era of low American gas prices could extend for decades into the future, experts say.

“There’s a large likelihood that the United States will be enjoying very low gas prices for a very long time, maybe 20 years,” said Mark Papa, who has monitored Haynesville developments as a partner at Riverstone Holdings LLC, one of the biggest energy-focused private-equity firms in the U.S.

The field produces 8% of the nation’s natural gas, making it the second largest after the giant Marcellus Shale in the Northeast. Because it is located in Louisiana, near several interstate pipelines, potential export facilities and industrial consumers, an increase in gas production in the Haynesville has an outsize impact on gas prices across the entire country.

The cost of natural gas matters because the fuel increasingly powers the U.S. economy and is critical to the Obama administration’s push to reduce carbon emissions in electricity generation. American gas consumption has risen at a 2.4% annual growth rate for the past decade, while demand for coal has fallen by 2.7% and oil by less than 1%, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. Gas now is used to generate about 30% of U.S. electricity and heat nearly half of all American homes.

Domestic natural gas is abundant and inexpensive, largely due to the newer drilling and extraction techniques that came into widespread use a decade ago.

The Haynesville Shale was a popular location for energy companies to drill in 2007 and 2008, when U.S. gas prices briefly topped $13 a million British thermal units. Local governments in Louisiana, flush with tax receipts, handed out bonuses to employees and built new high-school football fields.

But the region’s gas was buried in deep, hot rocks, making it relatively expensive to produce. And when gas prices fell to below $4 a BTU in 2009, energy companies moved their drilling rigs elsewhere. Some went in search of more lucrative oil in North Dakota and Texas; others went northward to Pennsylvania, where the gas-rich Marcellus Shale was less costly to produce.

But a few companies never left and kept drilling a handful of wells each year. Recently, Comstock, Chesapeake and closely-held Vine Oil & Gas LP drilled Haynesville wells that suggest the gas is economic to exploit at today’s lower prices.

In August, Comstock officials told investors that it could get a 30% return on its new wells even with gas at $2.50 a million BTUs. The Frisco, Texas-based company plans to drill more wells in Louisiana’s Haynesville than it will in the oily Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas.

Comstock shares have tripled since it released news of its new Haynesville wells. “It was a bold move to return to the Haynesville and I know there were a lot of doubters out there,”Kim Pacanovksy, an equity researcher at Imperial Capital LLC, said on an investor call with Comstock management, “but you’re starting to see dividends now, so congratulations.”

Chesapeake’s management also is heralding its Haynesville results. Similar to Comstock, the company is drilling gas wells with longer horizontal legs and using more sand and water to crack open the rocks.

“Applying this technique has really doubled the area that we can drill in the Haynesville,Jason Pigott, a Chesapeake executive vice president, told investors.

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