Estimates for how much natural gas can be recovered using hydraulic fracturing of shale rock may be wildly optimistic and could lead to a sharp decline in US gas production, an analysis has warned.
This in turn could cause serious economic impacts on countries that are gearing up to buy cheap gas or plan to develop their own, it says.
The process - better known as fracking - has been hailed as an energy source that could last 100 years even at high US consumption rates.
Forecasts by the US Energy Information Administration have painted an optimistic view, suggesting production can grow year-on-year at least until 2040.
A new study of gas reserves from fracking carried out by the Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department at the University of Texas, Austin counters this view, however, as reported today in the journal Nature.
A dozen researchers spent three years studying shale gas forecasts from the government information unit and carrying out its own analysis .
Their study suggests a production peak could be reached as soon as 2020, with a rapid decline to follow.
This sounds like yet another energy problem for the US, but the research has implications that extend further afield.
US industry and electricity producers have decided to bet the information agency’s estimates are correct, investing in gas-fired electricity plants and energy-intensive industries.
The apparent success of fracking in the US has encouraged other countries to exploit gas supplies locked into shale.
Australian/Canadian fracking firm Tamboran Resources has sought planning permission to drill wells here and in Northern Ireland.
The Government then intervened, asking the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct a study assessing environmental impacts and risks associated with the practice.
This will not be ready for at least another year and until then fracking is in abeyance here.
The UK government, however, has embraced fracking, with prime minister David Cameron describing opponents as “irrational”.
He is an enthusiastic supporter, saying fracking must be accepted for the good of the country.
The US study may slow this, assuming the geological science on which it is based is accepted in the UK and elsewhere. It could also impact the profitability of fracking in the Republic.
The Austin research was “bad news”, according to the head of the university’s petroleum unit.
"We are setting ourselves up for a major fiasco," he argues in Nature.