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Robert FriBack to OpinionRobert Fri

Awash in natural gas?

Full-page ads running in major newspapers promise: “Clean, domestic and abundant energy. Ready right now.” This vast and ready new energy source turns out to be an old friend – natural gas. In fact, the news about natural gas is very positive. But the solution to all our energy problems? Not quite.

Natural gas production in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania. This large repository of natural gas extends into West Virginia, New York and Ohio.

The good news is that the recoverable U.S. natural gas resource jumped by more than a third just in the last few years, thus extending the potential life of domestic gas supply by more than 25 years at the current consumption rate. Essentially all of this increase is due to something called shale gas. Geologists have known about shale gas for some time, but it has been trapped so tightly in its geologic formation that normal gas well drilling technology could bring very little of it to the surface. New drilling technology extracts much more, thus leading to the increase in the resource estimate.

So what should we make of this windfall?

First of all, having an abundant domestic gas supply is a very good thing. Natural gas supplied 43 percent of residential energy use in 2009, and more than 35 percent of the energy for commercial buildings. It also accounted for 23 percent of electricity generation and plays a major role in industrial processes, especially in the chemical industry. It’s reassuring that a larger homegrown supply of natural gas should be around to support these essential markets.

Moreover, natural gas is likely to have a critical role in moving the electric power industry away from coal. Natural gas power plants are excellent backups to variable energy sources like wind power, and so may be essential to the growth of renewable energy. Even more advantageous is that natural gas contains about half as much carbon as coal. For this reason, producing electricity from natural gas could be an important bridge to a time when carbon dioxide emissions from power plants are no longer tolerated.

But natural gas can’t do everything. For example, while it’s possible to burn natural gas in existing internal combustion engines, hauling it around in the family car requires a large compression tank that’s both clumsy and expensive. Long-haul trucks, on the other hand, could run on liquefied natural gas, and according to a recent study from Resources for the Future, that could cut domestic oil consumption by almost 10 percent per day by 2030. That’s significant, and potentially worth the expense of building trucks that could use natural gas. Nevertheless, even abundant domestic natural gas supplies can make only a modest contribution to solving our addiction to oil.

Shale in Marcellus, N.Y. Photo: Lyklock

Another reason to temper enthusiasm is that sustaining significant production from shale gas is tough. One challenge is that the production from each shale gas well drops off quickly and sharply — in some fields, on the order of 70 percent in the first year. The reason is that gas doesn’t flow easily through the very tightly grained shale formation, so almost all the production comes from gas nearest the borehole. To maintain production therefore requires repeated new drilling, with the result that sustained production from shale gas requires a continuous industrial enterprise.

This more or less permanent drilling program creates a second challenge, which is managing the environmental risks inherent in accessing tight formations like shale. Producing shale gas requires drilling a well horizontally along the formation (rather than vertically through it), and then fracturing the surrounding rock with water under enormous pressure. The water also contains a cocktail of additives that help increase production, some of which may be toxic. All of this adds up to a big job of acquiring — and then safely disposing of — very large amounts of water more or less continuously over the life of the gas reserve without depleting or contaminating the local water supply. Not everyone is comfortable with these risks. New York, where part of the large Marcellus shale reserve lies, seems ready to suspend shale gas production until the environmental issues are more clearly understood.

On balance, though, natural gas has a bright future in the United States. It’s not the answer to all of our energy problems, but it’s certainly a valuable asset over at least the next couple of decades. It’s not quite as ready now as the ads would have us believe, but the technical, environmental and even cultural obstacles should yield to thoughtful and disciplined management. Better to concentrate on that than on full-page ads.

Robert Fri is a visiting scholar at Resources for the Future, a nonprofit organization that studies natural resource and environmental issues. He has served as director of the National Museum of Natural History, president of Resources for the Future, and deputy administrator of both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Research and Development Administration. Read his full bio.


  • Bernadette Medige

    The “brilliant future” of natural gas is at the expense of drinking water! Which one can we not survive without?

  • Rebecca

    Whenever I see “…at the current consumption rate” I wonder if we will stay consuming at this level. The answer is definitively ‘no.’ Growth in natural gas consumption is exponential! Even at what seems to be a low rate of growth of 0.7% we would double our natural gas use in just 100 years. And if we were to use natural gas to replace oil then “Extending the potential life of domestic gas supply by more than 25 years” becomes much less impressive when you take into account the growth rate.

  • Evelyn

    The ads that I’ve seen speak of abundant natural gas “for the next 60 years.” How short sighted is that??? Sixty years isn’t even a blink of the eye in geological time. And environmental degradation may be great with shale fracturing and we don’t know how to handle it safely. Enough clean water for human needs is becoming a great concern now so how can we use (and dirty) water to extract gas? And when will it use more energy than it creates to extract this gas?

  • Heather K

    Watch the documentary titled “Gasland” and ANYONE would change their minds about this awful stuff. It’s not a “windfall” at all; rather everyone’s worst nightmares come true. When you can’t get a straight answer from legislators about it, and the governing bodies and key environmental agencies, and the defiantly devious and dishonest natural gas industry people refuse to even be interviewed or questioned about it, you KNOW something is rotten, very rotten. When they won’t even fully disclose the “proprietary” chemicals used to extract the natural gas from the environment, you also know something is very, very amiss in this equation.

    In some localities where they are already doing this, citizens can quite literally hold a match to their taps and light their water on fire…all while being told something different, but yet being offered cisterns and containers of water in exchange. These same citizens are often gag-ordered about, having to sign waivers that they will never speak of the horrors they are enduring because of this heinous industry.

    This is NOT a magic solution to our energy problems. It is only one of a series of BAD ideas that will take us down a seriously devastating path, and lead to far more problems and far reaching ramifications than ANY solutions it may provide.

    What we NEED is to work on sustainable and LONG TERM energy solutions that are safe for the environment, our drinking water, our citizens, and down the line, our children’s children’s children. There are ideas and solutions on the table, but those who are getting FILTHY RICH off of oil, natural gas, and other horribly polluting energy sources are looking out for number one and BLOCKING (fiercely so) any measures to replace those sources with better, cleaner, and more viable options.

    Once again, watch “Gasland” and then THINK before signing off on something with empty promises of “cleaner” fuel. While it may be clean-burning (in theory) the processes used to obtain it are poisoning our MOST PRECIOUS natural resource of all; our water. Those processes are responsible for wrecking the environment, people’s health, the health of our animals and wildlife, and even the DEATHS of people who have been adversely affected by them.

    If you care about ANYTHING, you owe it to yourself to be informed about the practices and policies of these industries which promise solutions, safe ones, to our problems, but truly give the exact opposite, wreaking havoc and destruction in their wake. LEARN about what is involved THEN decide if this is something you would want in your backyard…the people whose backyard it’s already in are sick and DYING for others’ wealth (and that is the bottom line here, pure profit) and convenience.

  • jim Kaff

    This is kind of a hack piece, no matter what side of the issue you might be on. This guy is at an institute and studies this stuff? Oh vey. What about if all electrical generation were converted to natural gas? How much carbon would that take out of the air in the US? No more coal ash, mountain top removal…. And reducing our oil needs 10% with natural gas trucks is just shrugged off. That is a huge number. This is point counterpoint journalism at its worst. Thoughtful…..disciplined……. I bet this jarhead uses the word balanced and nuanced all the time also. Nice picture of shale though.

  • Max Fury

    Only one paragraph to explain what hydraulic fracturing is doing to the environment and drinking water supplies in PA, WV, TX, WY, LA, CO, ????

    Do a search for “water contamination from fracking” to see what this type of drilling is doing to the environment. It will take more than one paragraph to explain.