According to reputable energy sources, the United States has abundant reserves of natural gas.
In fact, the U.S. leads all other nations in its harvesting of this clean energy resource, tapping into the 2,543 trillion cubic feet that energy experts agree will fuel our economic growth for decades.
That’s a very good thing, now that China sees domestic consumption stabilizing. Fortunately for China, it gets most of its oil from Iran, where it is heavily invested in oil and gas exploration and extraction.
Freed from the tyranny of Mideast Oil, the U.S. could also be expected to show extensive growth, though it operates under greater scrutiny in terms of the environment.
Unfortunately, the one venue by which the U.S. could achieve energy independence and protect the environment is renewable energy resources like solar, wind and geothermal.
These clean energy vectors briefly raised their heads during the 1970’s, spurred first by OPEC (the Organization of Arab Petroleum States) initiating an oil embargo, and finally by the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which promised a less capitalistic, more prototypical Muslim-oriented government.
The Mideast is once again the subject of growing concern, and as a result renewables are experiencing a renaissance.
Natural gas has been called the “in-between” fuel, bridging the gap between the current economic profile (as defined by a falling GDP, according to a November 13 Ing Investment Management report) and that renewable energy future. The one very important role natural gas fills in this transition is easing the nation across the economic gap from fossil fuels to renewables. Producing half as much carbon dioxide, or CO2, as coal, a third of coal combustion’s nitrogen oxides, and a mere one percent as much sulfur oxide as coal, natural gas has become abundant and cheap.
Professor Mike Stephenson – Will gas warm us up or help cool us down?
Is gas the energy source of the future? Gas is relatively clean (greenhouse emissions are around 50% less than coal) so we’d be doing our bit for the planet. There’s no question there’s plenty of gas in the ground, meaning a greater proportion of our energy could be generated from reliable sources, making us more resilient to political instability, natural disasters and terrorist attacks elsewhere in the world. A cheap, lower-carbon home-grown supply of energy sounds like an ideal solution.
But others would argue that this would be just a short-term fix. The price of gas seems set to rise and in any case gas is still a fossil fuel: if we’re serious about combating climate change we need drastic reductions in our emissions and that also means developing the UK’s vast potential for wind, wave and solar power.
There are powerful arguments on all these questions. To give voice to them Intelligence Squared, in partnership with Shell, brought together some of the world’s experts — from both sides of the debate — for an evening of discussion on the geology, politics and environmental impact of gas.
Professor Mike Stephenson is the Head of Science and Energy at the British Geological Survey. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the Elsevier Journal Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology, a board member of the Geological Society Petroleum Group, and a fellow of the Geological Society. He holds a PhD from the University of Sheffield and was appointed Special Professor at the University of Nottingham in 2010
“Clean Gas?”… that is Open to Interpretation… Right?
Of course, when analyzed for its energy profile based on life cycle emissions and environmental impacts, natural gas is not quite as clean as its defenders picture it.
The worst of this profile is the method by which natural shale gas plays are harvested, namely fracking.
These plays, or fields, ranging from Pennsylvania and the Marcellus Shale Play along the Appalachian range and its coal seams, to the Fayetteville Shale Play in the Arkoma Basin in Arkansas, are low permeability plays, which means the gas is confined in rocks whose tight structure prohibits or limits the amount of gas that can be extracted.
Gas drillers overcome this difficulty by drilling into the closely aligned layers of rock and injecting, under massive pressure, sand, water (often from the play itself) and chemicals, which help fracture, or “frack”, rock, creating fissures which allow the natural gas to escape.
Done properly, it is claimed that fracking is a relatively environmentally sound method of harvesting the natural gas across the U.S.
However, it is somewhat disconcerting to think that injecting the earth with chemicals and cracking it open all over the globe won’t eventually have consequences. It is also extremely disturbing that it wasn’t until April 17, 2012 that the EPA imposed any air emissions regulations on oil and gas fracking. A major economic drawback is that, the more shale plays that are discovered, the further the price of natural gas drops, so drillers need to work quickly to tap resources and sell them to recoup their investment. And, as always, haste makes waste.
Water on Fire?
One fracking chemical identified as possibly polluting drinking water and ground water in Colorado, West Virginia and Pennsylvania was later attributed to plastic ingredients in the pumps used to bring drinking water to the surface. According to the U.S. Environmental Agency (EPA), this chemical, 2 butoxyethyl phosphate, or Tris (and not 2-BE butoxyethyl phosphate), is a fire retardant, more likely used in manufacturing. Moreover, the presence of organic chemicals in well water has been documented for 50 years.
That does not mean that drinking well contamination is not related to fracking, as it may well be. Water should not burn, or smell like an open grave. However, other chemicals appearing in drinking water supplies near these shale plays are what the EPA, in its 121-page report calls “legacy pit” residues from very old wells drilled before fracking was used. The remedy, say EPA fracking experts, is to build safer, 21st century wells, and to insure both drilling transparency and industry oversight.
Additionally, fracking in the Wyoming Pavillion play is via wells sited alongside old wells that are an exception to the rule; that is, shallow (1,000 to 1,500 feet) and built on an infrastructure of weak and badly designed wells from the last century. Most fracking today takes place at depths of 10,000 feet or more, and is, according to energy experts, considerably more sophisticated than the 1970’s Pavillion wells drilled during the Oil Embargo.
Several other factors besides fracking impact the life cycle assessment of natural gas as a clean-burning fossil fuel. These include getting the gas to the surface; treating it to meet “pipeline quality” standards by capturing and removing associated hydrocarbons like butane, ethane, propane and pentanes; and extracting water vapor, hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, helium and nitrogen via technologically superior procedures involving machine and chemical operations, and finally piping or shipping it to the power plant.
Natural gas is not perfect, and fracking admittedly introduces a number of environmental deficits.
Well water could be fouled. The construction of natural gas pipelines and power plants can disrupt natural habitats, even critical habitats like the Nebraska Sandhills. This, an almost 20,000-square-mile swath of native grasses rooted in soil over sand and rock deposits that trap and hold water, makes the Sandhill formation one of the biggest aquifers in America, and the home of more than 314 species, which is why the Keystone XL pipeline was rerouted.
In spite of that, natural gas might be the only option, aside from nuclear power, that will allow us to get back in the industrial production game without holding our breaths over the price of oil and its availability. It will be decades before renewables can supply more than the current 10 percent of generation. We can get from here to there, but maybe not without natural gas and not without fracking.