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

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In Chesapeake's first major dive into the Eagle Ford, the company spent $1.7 billion acquiring 700,000 acres across in 2010 — which company geologists estimate holds 5,000 barrels of oil per acre, according to Forbes. Later that year, CEO McClendon forged a joint venture in which China's state-owned Cnooc Ltd., which paid Chesapeake $1.1 billion upfront for a one-third stake and pledged to put up another $1.1 billion to pay for drilling costs. In short, Chesapeake was able to recoup nearly all its initial investment while dodging drilling costs and holding onto two-thirds of its Eagle Ford holdings.

Drillers in the Eagle Ford pumped out 21.8 million barrels of oil in 2011, UTSA's Tunstall said, nearly three times the center's initial estimate. The production of highly sought-after condensate hit almost 19 million barrels that same year, compared to original projections of just 5.6 million barrels. And 221 billion cubic feet of natural gas were produced in the Eagle Ford last year, double the center's initial projections. In all, Tunstall anticipates the region could see a peak of 2,500 new wells drilled annually by 2016, only then gradually tapering off. In all, there could be 60,000 wells in productions across the region, he said, though he hesitated to offer projections more than a decade out. The Gas Association's Blackmon isn't as wary. "We expect the life of these wells to be quite long. … A span of decades," he told a crowd at an Eagle Ford Shale Open House event the group hosted last year at Coastal Bend College. "They will come in at a much higher production rate initially, and you will have a pretty steep decline rate in these wells for the first several months, and then they will level out and produce for a long period of time."

It's not the steep decline Berman has a problem with. It's the suggestion that the wells will continue to be productive afterwards. Tracking 200 wells drilled in the Eagle Ford in 2008, Berman says he's seen a 145 percent annual rate of decline — "the most astonishing decline rate of any shale play I've looked at.

"The reality is that these things have a life cycle and the life cycle, I'm afraid, will be shorter than the pervasive optimism people feel at the beginning."•

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