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Why the Great Shale Rush in the Eagle Ford may be over sooner than you think

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A line of oil and gas industry insiders speaking at the sold-out Eagle Ford Consortium's inaugural conference this month in San Antonio praised the potential of the South Texas shale with near-prophetic ecstasy. Prospects in the oil- and gas-bearing shale formation crossing beneath 24 South Texas counties known as the Eagle Ford are "unprecedented," "extraordinary," and "game-changing," said David Blackmon, Texas state lead for the industry lobby America's Natural Gas Alliance. Laredo Energy CEO Glenn Hart named the Eagle Ford the "king of the hill" of shale plays, a region key to ushering in "the shale gas revolution" and "a stronger America."

For days local officials, state oil and gas regulators, industry insiders, and academics pushed a similar refrain. Advances in hydraulic fracturing, shooting massive amounts of chemical-laden water deep underground to break up oil and gas-bearing shale, has made the stuff easier than ever to get. And the new prospect of easy-to-access natural gas has sweeping implications, they said: this "golden age of gas" could wean us off foreign, unfriendly oil suppliers and flood the rural South Texas economy with cash and jobs. The promise is measured not in years, but decades — nearly three decades just to "fully develop" the regional play, estimated Texas Rail Road Commissioner David Porter. "We must plan for the future, we must think long-term, and we must get it right," he said.

"By all accounts, this play appears to be very real," said Thomas Tunstall, director of the Center for Community and Business Research at UTSA, which conducted its own sweeping economic impact study of the Eagle Ford last year. He laid out Eagle Ford production figures that wooed the crowd: the shale is booming bigger and faster than the center predicted even last year, he said. "Clearly our estimates were conservative."

But while it borders on the heretical to say it aloud, judging from very recent shale plays elsewhere in the country — like the Marcellus, the Barnett, the Fayetteville — ours may not go down as the century of natural gas, after all. Critics contend the promise of decades-long growth doesn't match what's been seen elsewhere, that the eventual Eagle Ford bust could come sooner than industry promises suggest — though some lucky landowners, local governments, and oil and gas companies flipping mineral leases will still be all the richer for it.

$$$$$$

"We're taking every possible action to develop a near 100-year supply of natural gas," President Obama said earlier this month, doubling down on his State of the Union promise to fully develop America's natural gas reserves. While shale gas optimism has become the newest energy-policy talking point, there's another critical narrative taking shape, one espoused largely by peak-oil proponents saying the energy revolution beneath our feet has been oversold. Energy analyst Chris Nelder writing for Slate in December insisted that only an 11-year supply of natural gas is shown to exist and be recoverable, judging by the numbers coming from current shale plays — and that's at America's current consumption rate, about 24 trillion cubic feet per year, which natural gas proponents hope to grow.

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