ExxonMobil and the Environmental Impacts of Shale
Written by: Sophie Price
Edited by: Kyra Odell
A new era of Oil tycoons – ExxonMobil acquires and Merges with Pioneer Natural Resources
Earlier this month, Exxonmobil announced that it would be purchasing and merging with Pioneer Natural Resources, the primary shale oil producer in the United States, for a hefty $60 million. Pioneer, being the #1 producer in the Permian basin in Southwest Texas, would essentially give Exxonmobil a quasi-monopoly over oil production in the United States. Between their conventional crude oil output and their newly acquisitioned shale production sites that formerly belonged to Pioneer, Exxon is estimated to be producing a staggering 1.3 million barrels of oil a day – more than the entire output of many OPEC countries (Sorkin, 2013). This is only a small fraction, however, of the colossal 13 million barrels a day that makes up the total output of the United States – a record high (Roy; Valle, 2023).
This deal with Pioneer has the power to completely transform the US oil industry. Not only will this help to forward the United States as a major oil exporter and decrease foreign imports, but the industry could experience a shift that would rely a lot more heavily on the production of shale to supplement the conventional oil. Efforts to mine shale on a large scale have only really taken off within the last 15 years, and production is only expected to grow. That being said, what exactly are the differences and benefits of mining shale? What are the environmental implications? In order to better grasp the importance and possible effects of the increased interest in mining shale, we need to understand what shale oil actually is.
What exactly is shale oil?
Shale oil is a form of natural gas with a very high methane content extracted from shale rock. It is often classified as “unconventional” due to the fact that it is found in shale rock rather than more permeable alternatives that contain conventional oil like sandstone or limestone (Grantham Research Institute, 2022). Extracting shale oil is possible due to the advances in development of horizontal drilling techniques and hydraulic fracking, which allows natural gas producers to be able to better extract resources from ‘hard to reach’ rock formations (Hayes, 2022). Because of this, mining shale is much more costly than conventional oil mining and requires more labor and resources (eg. water).
Assessing Environmental impacts
Shale is not something that is unique to the United States and Canada. In 2015, resource estimates as to how much shale is technically and economically possible to retrieve predicted the possibility of 214.6 trillion cubic meters (tcm) across 46 countries. The top producers of these countries include China, Argentina, Algeria, the United States, and Canada (Grantham Research Institute, 2022). Because of how widespread resource reserves are and the technological advancements in drilling that allow us to better access large quantities of shale oil, the environmentalist community is keeping a close eye out on ecologically degrading consequences that result from fracking.
Firstly, shale is a fossil fuel. Therefore, it is not clean burning and will continue to add greenhouse gasses into our atmosphere and perpetuate our deep-rooted cycle of carbon dependence. However, is it better or worse than conventional oil? According to Micheal Wang, Argonne senior scientist and lead on the Greenhouse gasses, Regulated Emissions, and Energy use in Transportation (GREET) model, studies have suggested that net greenhouse gas intensity of production is similar between the two different resources. This actually contradicts an earlier estimate that the Bakken play (Central Canada/Northern midwest US) “might produce greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent higher than for crude oil production” (Kunz, 2015). Despite this conclusion, environmentalists still warn about the possibility of leaking methane, which is possible during shale gas extraction. Hence, careful monitoring and checks are recommended.
The main concern with shale fracking seems to actually have to do with water quality. A study conducted in 2016 by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded that fracking had a high probability of leading to the contamination of drinking water (Grantham Research Institute, 2022). This is caused by the release of ground minerals into local ground water supply from the intense pressure applied to the rock from fracking. In addition to this, the chemicals mixed with water used in the fracking process often leaked into groundwater reserves. As Soeder explains, “Horizontal drilling of a single shale well can generate several hundred tons of drill cuttings, which may release harmful elements like arsenic, radium, and uranium” (Soeder; Kent 2018). Furthermore, short-term and long-term exposures studied within laboratories under different environmental conditions have resulted in the identification of potentially toxic metals being emitted from the production of black-shale drilling (Soeder; Kent 2018).
Overall, the uptick in shale production is keeping environmentalists on their toes and holding their breath. Matthew Bernstein, a senior shale analyst at Rystad Energy, stated "If ExxonMobil is crowned the undisputed king of the Permian… the shale sector will fundamentally become a more mature consolidated business”, which will inevitably push back against efforts being made by resource companies to invest and research alternative energies (Roy; Valle, 2023). Shale interests will undoubtedly contribute to the continuation of carbon lock-in and the degradation of local environments, of which ExxonMobil will be the ring leader within US oil and natural gas production.
Kunz, Tona. (2015, October 15). Analysis Shows Greenhouse Gas Emissions Similar for Shale, Crude Oil. Argonne National Laboratory. https://www.anl.gov/article/analysis-shows-greenhouse-gas-emissions-similar-for-shale-crude-oil#:~:text=The%20reports%20show%20that%20shale,to%20traditional%20crude%20oil%20production.
Roy, Mrinalika, and Sabrina Valle. (2023, October 6). Pioneer Shares Jump on Exxon Mega-Merger Talks. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/markets/deals/pioneer-shares-jump-merger-talks-with-exxon-2023-10-06/.
Soeder, Daniel J, and Douglas B Kent. (2023, September). When Oil and Water Mix: Understanding the Environmental Impacts of Shale Development. GSA Today. https://rock.geosociety.org/net/gsatoday/science/G361A/article.htm.
Sorkin, Andrew Ross, Ravi Mattu, Bernhard Warner, Sarah Kessler, Michael J. De La Merced, Lauren Hirsch, and Ephrat Livni. (2023, October 6). A Mega-Deal May Await in the Oil Patch. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/10/06/business/dealbook/exxon-pioneer-deal.html
Grantham Research Institute. (2022, February 11). What Is Shale Gas, How Is It Extracted through Fracking and What Are Fracking’s Impacts? https://www.lse.ac.uk/granthaminstitute/explainers/what-is-shale-gas-how-is-it-extracted-through-fracking-and-what-are-frackings-impacts/.
The Economist. (2023, October 11). Why ExxonMobil Is Paying $60bn for Pioneer. https://www.economist.com/business/2023/10/11/why-exxonmobil-is-paying-60bn-for-pioneer?utm_medium=cpc.adword.pd&utm_source=google&ppccampaignID=18798097116&ppcadID=&utm_campaign=a.22brand_pmax&utm_content=conversion.direct-response.anonymous&gclid=CjwKCAjw7c2pBhAZEiwA88pOF_FN1kOeMyRJQxrnjwEYjWymLH1xWuiTqXhnssHHUQqSSrb3PECjxxoC9MQQAvD_BwE&gclsrc=aw.ds