If you answered cold fusion, eeehhhhh! Your time’s run out! If you answered natural gas, have a cigar. Natural gas for the simple reason that it is one of the quickest ways to achieve a future in which an oil importing nation is no longer held hostage by foreign oil and carbon and other harmful emissions are sharply curtailed.
Seems like a heretical statement coming from someone who spent the last 15 years helping to develop an installed base of renewable energy projects. With 2010 Total Energy Production of 1.2% and 0.1% of wind and solar, respectively, the impact of renewable energy is a long way off. In fact, there are signs that the industry maybe softening in the U.S.
Natural gas is the cleanest burning fossil fuel. The combustion of natural gas emits significantly lower levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide than does the combustion of coal or oil. When used in efficient combined-cycle power plants, natural gas combustion can emit less than half as much CO2 as coal combustion, per unit of electricity output.
Are there “issues” with the extraction of natural gas from shale plays? Most certainly. Can the issues be managed? Again the answer is “Yes.”
Problems, and there were fewer than one would think, were as much a “Drill First – Figure Out Regulations Later” attitude than and real technical issues with horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing “Fracking.” The issues were traced to use of unproven methods buy unqualified drillers and frackers as well as misconception and perception. The fact of the matter is there were only 42 (<0.3%) documented incidents of casing failures from improper cementing out of over 15,000 shall gas wells drilled in U.S.
Another misconception is the public outrage over benzene emissions for wells. Again the facts show that there were little of no benzene emissions in the Barnett shale. Measurements ran about 0.001% or 1/1,000 of 1% benzene, compared to 0.5% to 1% in gasoline.
Environmental concerns with shale gas production are being raised throughout the global landscape where it is technically feasible to extract the natural gas. The primary driver is hydraulic fracturing’s impact on drinking water. The fracturing slurry is a mixture of 99% water and sand in combination with a proprietary mix of 1% chemical additives. The fluid is injected underground to fracture rock containing natural gas. This can impact drinking water from contaminated aquifers and wells. The other concern is the potential for water and air contamination by fugitive leakage of natural gas during extraction and delivery. Natural gas is a potent greenhouse gas with the ability to trap heat almost 21 times more effectively than carbon dioxide.
The brouhaha over water contamination arose from an unfortunate situation in Wyoming. Many news articles about the situation failed to highlight some key clauses in the EPA’s decision. First, the Agency was not definitive in blaming fracking for the water problems. Second, the EPA released the study before it had gone through the peer review process. Third, and most importantly, the Wyoming field is very different from most fracking areas. The gas-bearing rock being fractured in Wyoming was only about 1,220 feet deep and some water wells reached as far as 800 feet. By comparison, the gas-bearing rocks targeted by fracking operators in Texas and Pennsylvania are several thousand feet below any water supplies. Unlike shale formations like the Marcellus in Pennsylvania and the Barnett in Texas, the Wyoming gas was in a sandstone reservoir and did not have a geologic barrier or “cap” atop the gas-bearing layer. With so many major geologic differences between the fracked wells near Pavillion and those in shale basins, industry experts caution against extrapolating any conclusions from the Wyoming study.
Worldwide technical recoverable shale gas reserves is estimated to be about 32,500 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) U.S.’s reserves have the potential to produce 845 Tcf including “wet gas” wells that produce liquid petroleum condensate along with natural gas. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that there are 1,279.5 Trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of technically recoverable natural gas resources in the United States.
Natural gas can change the region’s economic landscape. Recently the IHS Global Insight reported:
“….. natural gas “shale gale” that began in the Barnett Shale is having “profound economic impacts” on the U.S. economy — creating jobs, reducing consumer costs for natural gas and electricity and escalating federal, state and local tax revenues,”
“….. shale gas development, after contributing $76.9 billion to the nation’s economic output in 2010, will add $118.2 billion in 2015 and $231.1 billion in 2035.”
“….. in 2010, the shale gas industry supported more than 600,000 jobs; that number will likely grow to nearly 870,000 by 2015 and 1.6 million-plus by 2035.”
“….. savings from lower natural gas prices, as well as associated lower prices for other consumer purchases, will add an average $926 in disposable income per household annually from 2012 to 2015 and more than $2,000 annually by 2035.”
“….. the shale gas industry and related jobs pay higher wages — an average $23.16 per hour — than those in manufacturing, transportation and education.”
“….. the boom in domestic gas production has held down natural gas prices and thus electric rates in Texas because gas is burned to generate much of the power.”
“….. as a transportation fuel, compressed natural gas is cleaner-burning and much cheaper than gasoline,”
The primary economic consideration is the need to boost demand of natural gas. As supplies increase, unless there is a corresponding increase in demand, the price will plummet until it becomes financially sound to stop productions.
The two primary sectors that use fossil fuels are electricity generation through coal-fired power generation stations and the transportation industry through petroleum. Converting coal-fired to natural gas-fired electricity generation plant is on a relative basis a no brainer. However, the transportation sector is somewhat more problematic in terms of converting vehicles internal combustion energy from gasoline to natural gas. The cost of conversion can range from $12,000 for light-duty to over $35,000 for heavy-duty vehicles When gasoline retail prices fall below $3.00 a gallon, it’s a difficult proposition to justify the cost to convert vehicles to run on CNG. However, over $3.25 a gallon, conversion becomes a sound investment.
Natural gas can also play an essential role in the export market. An article that ran early last year in the Huffington Post points in this direction.”U.S. Becomes Net Exporter Of Fuel For First Time In Nearly 20 Years”. Diesel and other oil-based fuels led the increase.
So what can be said about natural gas can be summed up in one phrase: “A thousand workers can provide it, hundreds of countries can benefit from it, billions can use it, and one earth can be protected by it.
In closing, more than any other fuel source today and for the near future, natural gas is the only fuel that can be utilized across major fossil fuel hungry sectors. As a sustainabilist would say, it supports the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit. Renewable fuels fail to satisfy these criteria.
1. EIA: http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/showtext.cfm?t=ptb0103
2. The Future of Natural Gas: An Interdisciplinary MIT Study: http://web.mit.edu/mitei/research/studies/naturalgas.html
3. NaturalGas.org http://www.naturalgas.org/business/analysis.asp
4. IHS Global Insight: http://www.ihs.com/info/ecc/a/shale-gas-jobs-report.aspx
5. Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/03/us-becomes-net-exporter-o_n_857085.html
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