International Shale Gas Propels U.S. Technology (and Profits)

by: Kent Moors

Last week, there was a meeting on shale gas that was standing room only. That's hardly major news these days, as producers, consumers, environmentalists, analysts, regulators, and, oh yes, investors all focus upon the new major player in the energy market.

Except this meeting took place in The City – London's financial district.

This may come as a surprise. After all, the way the European Union structures its energy pricing makes it more difficult for companies to make a profit.

On the other hand, rising dependence on imported gas (especially from Russia) does not sit well with Brussels.

Domestic shale gas, therefore, is increasingly regarded as the solution.

It will not eliminate the need for imports. But it may well allow Europe to renegotiate terms on pipeline contracts. And that's more than enough to accelerate the interest in shale gas.

Gas in Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, Asia…

Now, the U.K. itself has some possible shale plays, but that nation has barely even begun to estimate the possibilities.

Elsewhere in Europe, the development has advanced beyond the discussion stage. Production is underway in Sweden (Alum), Hungary (Makó Trough, Szolnok), Austria (the Vienna Basin),and Germany (Lower Saxony).

But the real breakthroughs are likely to come from five major plays in Poland, three in France, and Ukraine – where there may actually be more shale gas potential than the rest of Europe combined.

This is taking place elsewhere, too. Geologists tell us there is more shale in MENA (Middle East and North Africa) countries than anywhere else in the world.

Saudi Arabia had ignored its natural gas until recently. Now, that kingdom is involved in an energetic pursuit of both freestanding gas and shale.

In addition to the Saudis, substantial shale gas is expected elsewhere in the Middle East – especially Syria, Iraq and Jordan.

I have already talked to a delegation from Morocco on their oil and gas shale opportunities ("Shale Gas Initiative Brings Morocco to My Doorstep," December 13), and Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya have high prospects, as well.

However, the main global target these days is China.

There, the government has already committed to emphasizing gas as the future for electricity production. The attempt is to wean the country from its reliance on polluting, low-quality coal as fuel for power generation.

The Global Leader in Shale

Wherever you are in the world, the primary advantage in the development of shale gas is its ability to satisfy a larger portion of domestic energy requirements from local or regional production. Natural gas is also a rising source for the industrial and petrochemical applications that are essential for economic development.

The downside, of course, remains the environmental impact and water quality considerations.

Hydraulic fracking is the technology used to break open the rock and release the gas, and it employs large amounts of water. That, coupled with the chemicals used in the process, result in a fear of releasing toxic substances in flowback.

The U.S. is the global leader in shale gas (and oil) technology – both in extraction and in addressing the environmental consequences.

There are more than two dozen producing shale gas basins in the American market, along with several additional huge plays in Canada.

In response to the explosion of international interest in shale gas, the U.S. Department of State (DOS) launched the Global Shale Gas Initiative (GSGI) in April 2010.

The organization seeks to provide expertise and advice to developing countries worldwide on the exploitation of shale gas and its economic, policy, and market ramifications.

One of the reasons for the GSGI is the opportunity it presents American companies to profit from shale gas development elsewhere in the world.

Certainly, producers are interested…

Who's Positioned to Profit

In addition to those leading the shale gas production list – such as Chesapeake Energy Corp. (NYSE:CHK) – major oil companies have used M&A to move into the sector.

Exxon Mobil Corp. (NYSE:XOM) acquired XTO, and Chevron (NYSE:CVX) absorbed Atlas Resources to target shale gas. XOM has an immediate reason, since it is already involved in several European shale plays.

Others, such as Shell (NYSE:RDS.A), Total (NYSE:TOT), Statoil (NYSE:STO), as well as the Chinese majors CNOOC Ltd. (NYSE:CEO) and Sinopec (NYSE:SHI), are farming into already-producing basins or joint venturing with experienced major producers.

There are certainly opportunities for the investor to make some profit for what the operators are doing. Yet the main advantage may well come from the technical side.

Here, the current leaders in shale gas applications remain the largest oilfield service (NASDAQ:OFS) companies: Halliburton Co. (NYSE:HAL), owner of the patent on the primary frac technique, and Schlumberger Ltd. (NYSE:SLB), the worldwide leader in OFS.

The most significant potential for investor interest will be with those companies developing improved drilling techniques, non-chemical fracking processes, and larger-horsepower pumping equipment. Each of these categories becomes more essential as the number of shale gas wells grows – bringing renewed environmental concerns right along with it.

It has been less than a decade since the combination of horizontal drilling and fracking made the exploitation of shale gas profitable. In the interim, an initial stage of technical improvements has reduced the cost of production.

Another stage of improvements is now necessary, both to address the declining pricing of gas in the U.S. market (resulting from the rapidly increasing volume coming from shale development) and the need to make the process safer for the environment.

Currently, a number of small companies are rising to the challenge with advances in equipment, pumping techniques, and water treatment. This is going to be the next great example of the entrepreneurial spirit.

And it will receive a major boost from what is now happening elsewhere in the world.

Meanwhile, my next GSGI meeting comes this Friday, January 28.

The DOS is sending a delegation of Polish specialists for a session with me on some policy problems arising from the country's shale gas development.

If anything of note happens, you'll hear about it first – right here.

Disclosure: None

Original post