Natural Gas as Panacea: Dubious Path to a Green Future

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Many energy experts contend natural gas is the ideal fuel as the world makes the transition to renewable energy. But since much of that gas will come from underground shale, potentially at high environmental cost, it would be far better to skip the natural gas phase and move straight to massive deployment of solar and wind power.

For several years, many voices, including Texas energy baron T. Boone Pickens, have been touting natural gas as the best energy source to form a bridge between the current fossil-fuel economy and a renewable energy future. Proponents contend that not only is natural gas a cleaner-burning fuel than coal, producing lower greenhouse gas emissions, but that reserves of natural gas are far greater than previously believed because of vast reserves trapped throughout the U.S — and around the world — in huge underground formations of shale.

Earlier this month, Britain’s New Scientist magazine published an article about shale gas entitled, “Wonderfuel: Welcome to the Age of Unconventional Gas.” Last month, the Wall Street Journal ran its own op-ed ode to shale gas: “Shale Gas Will Rock the World.” The author, Amy Myers Jaffe — a fellow in energy studies at Rice University — wrote, “I am convinced that shale gas will revolutionize the industry — and change the world — in the coming decades.” She even suggested that the abundance of natural gas in shale deposits worldwide will slow the transition to a renewable energy future.

“It may be a lot harder to persuade people to adopt green power that needs heavy subsidies when there’s a cheap, plentiful fuel out there that’s a lot cleaner than coal, even if gas isn’t as politically popular as wind or solar,” Jaffe wrote.

The fact that shale gas exists in abundance is beyond question.”

But after spending the last few years analyzing all the sources of energy available to the United States, I am convinced that the choice is clear: Based on existing technology, solar and wind are the only practical alternatives that would provide America with abundant, independent energy with few undesirable environmental and human-health effects. While shale gas is estimated to be abundant, and the proponents tell you that it will be easy to extract the gas with few environmental effects, in fact this is a relatively experimental technology that has potentially large environmental risks.

The water pollution concerns alone should be sufficient to make the U.S. and other countries rethink future reliance on shale gas. Separating the gas from the shale, a process known as hydrofracturing, involves forcing a mixture of water, chemicals, and sand at high pressure down a well bore and into rock formations, creating small fractures that release the trapped gas. The process uses a huge amount of water — the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation estimates as much as 1 million gallons per well — at a time when water is already a limiting and precious resource. Second, hydraulic fracturing fluid may come back to the surface, or near enough, to affect groundwater supplies. This fluid is a mixture of chemicals including friction reducers, biocides to prevent the growth of bacteria that would damage the well piping or clog the fractures, a gel to carry materials into the fractures, and various other substances. Returning to the surface, it could also bring other environmentally damaging materials, such as heavy metals.

Advocates for shale gas claim that these effects will be minor. Others, including those in charge of water supplies, are not persuaded. In Pennsylvania, wells claimed to be safe have leaked natural gas into local domestic water supplies, with the gas bubbling out of faucets. Also in Pennsylvania, fracturing fluids have leaked before they have been sent underground and have also contaminated drinking water. These problems suggest that returning fracturing fluids to the surface could cause similar problems on a large scale.

Most of the gas is so deep underground that nobody is sure we can get at it.”

That shale gas exists in abundance — in the U.S., Europe, Australia, China, South Africa, and other regions — is beyond question. New Scientist reported that enough recoverable shale gas exists to meet the world’s needs for 60 years. The Marcellus Shale region in the eastern U.S. reportedly contains enough shale gas to meet U.S. natural gas demand for a century. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology released a report last week forecasting that, in part because of the exploitation of abundant shale gas reserves, natural gas will go from making up 20 percent of he U.S.’s energy supply today to 40 percent within several decades.

But what is the reality behind the optimistic claims for shale gas? The U.S. Geological Survey lists natural gas “reserves” — the amount believed to be in the ground — in four categories: readily available with current technologies, which accounts for only 1 percent of the known natural gas in U.S. territorial limits; technically recoverable (5 percent); marginal targets for accelerated technology (6 percent); and unknown but probable (84 percent). Shale gas shares the fourth category with coal gas and methyl hydrates. The latter are a kind of water ice with methane embedded in it and occur only where it is very cold, in Arctic permafrost and below 3,000 feet in the oceans.

In researching how best to make the transition to the green energy future, one of the first calculations I made was to find out how long the natural gas in each of the four categories would last if we obtained it independently — that is, only from U.S. territory. I was shocked by the result: Just using our 2006 rates of use of natural gas consumption — not including any major transition to fueling our cars and trucks — the “readily available” gas within the United States would be exhausted in just one year. That, plus what is called “technically recoverable” gas, would be gone in less than a decade. What is termed “unknown but probable” would last about a century.

This means that any significant increase in our consumption of natural gas will have to come from the “unknown but probable” reserves, much of which will be from formations of shale, a sedimentary rock formed from muds in which bacteria released methane. Most of this gas is so deep underground or otherwise not very accessible that nobody is really sure that we can get at a lot of it, or of how high an environmental price we must pay to retrieve it.

Solar and wind do not have the enormous environmental and economic costs of developing shale gas.”

Currently available wind and solar energy technologies, on the other hand, are up to the job right now. There just aren’t enough wind and solar installations, so today they provide less than 1 percent of the nation’s energy. We will need to rapidly scale up, so that by 2050 we can receive the majority of our energy from wind and solar power. That’s an enormous task: The U.S. Census Bureau forecasts that our population will reach 440 million by 2050 — nearly a 50 percent increase from today. That’s 150 million more people, each hoping to live at the standard of living we have grown accustomed to. When that happens, the amount of fossil fuels we use today, and which provide 86 percent of America’s energy, would provide those 440 million with less than two-thirds the energy they would need, if per-capita energy use remains the same as today.

Contrary to standard criticisms of solar and wind, providing this much energy in the future would not use up a lot of land. Based on current installations, less than 1 percent of U.S. land area would be required. Right now, 22 percent of U.S. land is in agriculture, not counting grassland pasture and range used by grazing animals.

What about costs? Wind is the cheapest energy source, with installation costs as low or lower than coal’s. There’s no need to pay for fuel, and no huge costs to repair the environmental damage caused by strip-mining and underground mining, let alone costs involved to try to develop “clean-burning coal.”

This leaves two problems: that solar and wind are variable from hour to hour, and that solar is, at present, the most expensive energy source to install, costing about four times as much per unit output as wind.

There are several ways to deal with the variability in solar and wind. First of all, we will not make a sudden leap from fossil fuels to solar and wind. Instead, there will be a slow transition as production and installation of solar and wind increase. During this transition, we will want to use all our energy sources, each for its best purposes. A few years ago there was a day in Spain during which one-third of the electrical energy came from solar, and nothing untoward happened — no grid failures, no blackouts; just business as usual. Fossil fuels and nuclear power plants can compensate for a good while for variations in solar and wind output.

As for solar power, the costs of producing new cells — photovoltaic or otherwise — are moving rapidly down, and increased research and development will inevitably lead to a similar decline in installation costs.

We won’t want to get completely away from liquid fuels. Gasoline, kerosene, and diesel fuel are wonderful ways to store, transport, and use energy. A gallon of gasoline contains an amazingly large amount of energy and is relatively safe and very convenient. Rather than expend our technological research and development on ways to get shale gas from deep bedrock, we could develop a kind of reverse refinery, dissociating water to hydrogen and oxygen, combining the hydrogen with carbon to give us methane (natural gas), and combining that with oxygen to give us ethanol. Developing this technology will be a major challenge, but I believe it is not beyond the creative and innovative science and engineering that has typified America.

I’m not proposing that America get 100 percent of its energy from solar and wind, just that we be heavily invested in these forms of energy that do not have the enormous potential environmental and economic costs of developing shale gas reserves.

Maintaining our high standard of living, our creative and innovative civilization, will not come easily. It needs lots of energy. It’s the great challenge of the future that must be approached openly, beyond special interests and ideologies. We can do it — there is a safe, sustainable, abundant-energy future. The question is, will we do it? Do we have the political will, the funding for inventiveness, and a government sufficiently independent of special interests for this to happen?

Article by Daniel b. Botkin appearing courtesy Yale Environment 360.

photo: todbaker

About Author

Yale Environment 360 is an online magazine offering opinion, analysis, reporting and debate on global environmental issues. We feature original articles by scientists, journalists, environmentalists, academics, policy makers, and business people, as well as multimedia content and a daily digest of major environmental news. Yale Environment 360 is published by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Yale University. We are funded in part by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The opinions and views expressed in Yale Environment 360 are those of the authors and not of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies or of Yale University.

  • Bilsko

    Daniel,

    I wonder if you’ve had a chance to look through the preliminary report on Natural Gas that Dr. Moniz and Co. at the MIT EI have just released: http://web.mit.edu/mitei/

    I think you’ll find some useful insight there; for one thing, while the use of unconventional sources of natural gas is expected to rise over the next 40 yrs, Shale gas will remain a modest contributor to our natural gas portfolio here in the US. I agree that the getting shale gas from the ground is a messy affair and that the prospect of continuing to wreak environmental damage is troublesome, but I think that your piece focuses a bit too narrowly on Shale gas, when there are certainly a number of other sources (conventional and unconventional) to be had.

    The vision of clean technologies spread throughout the country is breathtaking, but there are – as you rightly note – a number of issues that will need to be addressed.

    To nitpick on one detail, you’re almost right about solar PV being the most expensive ($/kW) generation source, but in reality nuclear power takes that title.

    What seems to be largely missing from the picture is the cost of all the transmission and distribution system upgrades that will be required to deliver all of this new power, not to mention all the storage that will be necessary (from the cheapest compressed-air to the most expensive ultra-cap technology) to deal with variable dispatch.And while wind and solar will be fine for electricity, what about all of the natural gas consumption for thermal energy?

    Well, natural gas driven co-generation and tri-generation systems ring every last efficiency drop out of each BTU of natural gas they use (producing electricity, heating, and cooling) and achieve substantially higher emissions reductions than similarly sized PV or Wind systems can deliver.

    And why go to all the trouble you describe in setting up a reverse refinery when there are ample sources of biofuels (think every waste-water treatment plant in the country for starters) standing by ready to prouce zero-net carbon fuels with technologies that exist today.

  • Isaacson

    I live in NorthCentral PA.

    Today there is much activity in the Marcellus natural gas drilling going on. The play goes from NY down to WV and is said to be a 100 year reserve.

    Also, from my window, I see 67 windmills that were put in last year by I think AES. But I heard they will not do the proposed 67 this year because the original 67 are not paying like they thought. The land was raped to put the windmills in and the people who lived there complained to no avail. The mountain is all bulldozed with really wide roads going to each windmill. The dust is horrible from the wide roads. The sound is eerry from the windmills and I heard that it can drive a person insane. But these folks are poor so they stood no chance of keeping it out of their front yards like the Cape Cod and Nantuckett bunch succeeded in. I would never want to live near one. But they are beautiful to look at from 6 miles away.

    Years ago there was a windmill north of me that a consumer put in thinking ‘green.’ But after 20 years went by he said to rebuild the bearings and everything would cost more than he saved over 20 years.

    The gas wells seem easier on the landscaping in my opinion. The gas companies say after the drilling is done and the well is hooked up to the pipeline, the land will be put back the way it was and re-seeded. Only a square set of pipes and a meter to see kind of what we see in towns now where the gas line goes through. Word is the gas companies costs a really low with this on land drilling. I hear few complaints by the neighbors – the roads have suffered from the truck traffic but everyone knows it’s temporary. Also, the DEP data states less than one-tenth of a percent of the wells have a problem and this fracking has been going on for 60 years. Pretty good industry track record in my opinion. Many people think the US could become much more energy independent should the shale gas be more developed and the fleets and trucks switch to NG. Plus the CO2 emissions are much less. It would make a nice transition to wind and solar while these are developed to be more economical for the consumer – I think that may be a while.

    It really boils down to dollars and cents and the risk to the land. Or risk vs reward. The land owners know the risk is low with fracking but the benefits will be great. And with this Gulf BP oil leak, it seems the stakes have been high for our gas guzzeling nation.

    But yes, I agree, in the future future, hydrogen or something like that.