Inevitably, the cliché that experts use to describe what’s going on in natural gas is “game changer.” The discovery in the last decade that new drilling techniques could open up vast reserves of fossil energy trapped in shale rock formations has produced what ordinarily cautious experts are calling a “natural gas revolution.” That revolution “is already changing the national energy dialogue and overall energy outlook in the United States—and could change the global natural gas balance,” as Robert Ineson and Daniel Yergin, two such experts, put it late last year in The Wall Street Journal.
Yergin, chairman of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates and for decades one of the top names in energy analysis, bases that vision on a radical reappraisal of U.S. natural gas reserves. The much more optimistic assessment is formed almost entirely on reconsidering shale gas, which until about a decade ago was considered too difficult to extract. A year ago, the Potential Gas Committee, a consortium of academic and industrial experts coordinated by the Colorado School of Mines, boosted its estimate of U.S. gas reserves by 45 percent, the largest such increase in the committee’s 44-year history. Combined with U.S. Department of Energy assessments, the total available future supply in the United States is now nearly 60 trillion cubic meters (2074 trillion cubic feet)—enough to meet the country’s gas needs for about 90 years, at current rates of consumption, or perhaps half that long if consumption is doubled.
Run all vehicles—or at least all heavy vehicles—on compressed natural gas; replace gas generation with wind. If done on a large scale, the Pickens program would make the United States much more independent of foreign oil. But the plan would help mitigate global warming only if there were enough wind to also substitute for coal.
—T. Boone Pickens plan
This is important, obviously, because energy demand is going to keep increasing fast, and natural gas can substitute for oil in a world that’s becoming increasingly short on fossil fuels. What’s more, gas is a clean and relatively low-carbon fuel. So, if solar fails to live up to its promise or wind runs into limits, or if nuclear still seems too costly and too risky, natural gas is well placed to take over. In principle, there appears to be enough newly recoverable gas in the United States to replace all the country’s coal-fired power, which generates nearly half the country’s electricity and accounts for more than a third of its carbon emissions. (Substituting gas would cut those emissions in half.) That’s why a seemingly improbable combination of energy specialists and environmentalists, including Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens and New York environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., have been singing the praises of natural gas.
Change electricity dispatch rules so that gas-fired plants are brought online ahead of coal base load. Per kilowatt-hour, gas-generated electricity produces only half as much carbon as coal. However, putting gas ahead of coal in the dispatch queue could drive up costs and complicate reliability rules.
—Robert F. Kennedy proposal
Newly accessible shale gas reserves may be equally large and enticing in other parts of the world, notably China and Eastern Europe. There, the so-called unconventional gas could represent a threat to Russia’s dominance of energy markets. But everywhere there’s a catch, and it’s not a small catch, though Yergin and Ineson call it the only one. It’s water.
To begin with, recovery of shale gas requires large quantities of water, which is injected to break up deep rock formations. The quantity of water involved may not be a big issue in, say, Pennsylvania, which is one of the most water-rich U.S. states and sits atop a huge shale gas reserve. But it can be important in the water-parched states of the U.S. Southwest and other dry places. As a recent Worldwatch Institute report put it, “the sheer volume of water consumed during hydraulic fracturing could make unconventional gas production costly and unsustainable in many areas of the world that are water constrained.”
Shale gas extraction’s effect on water quality is an even bigger issue. The water that’s injected contains a complicated recipe of chemicals that’s cooked up to address various needs, and by the time it has been recovered it has picked up still more chemicals, including a lot of salt and sometimes radioactive materials. Those chemicals, and the gas itself, can contaminate local water supplies. Considering that all politics is local, as the saying goes, if you add up all the particular situations where citizens have become alarmed about impacts on their water quality, this could be much more than a minor matter—especially considering that threatened local water supplies could include those of major metropolises, including those of New York City.
Thus, gas may be recoverable in theory but not in practice. And as many an expert has observed, there can be big difference between what nature provides and what the local community will permit.