Natural Gas Reality Check: No Magic Bullet for US Energy Issues
Of late, there has been much talk of natural gas being the latest—and best—answer to the United States’ energy woes, particularly the threat posed by what is called Peak Oil. Hailed by certain corners of the energy industry as “the prince of hydrocarbons,” gas has much to recommend it indeed: it is easy to transport, easy to use, cheap, and relatively clean. Moreover, recent reports suggest that gas shale fields in the US contain more natural gas than was originally suspected, and that such resources are enough to end (or at least greatly diminish) our country’s dependence on foreign oil.
However, not everyone is so easily convinced. As was reported by The Huffington Post on Wednesday, Arthur Berman, a Texas-based geological consultant, compared optimistic predictions concerning gas extraction and production to the mindset of banks buying into mortgage securitizations, which, of course, ultimately spurred the housing market crisis and the subsequent global financial meltdown. “In the midst of a boom or bubble, it’s hard to sit on the sidelines,” Berman said during the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas conference in Denver this week. “If you’re not in one of these plays, then Wall Street says, ‘Well, what’s the matter with you guys?’” Such aggressive speculation is exactly what leads to economic bubbles, Berman said, especially when there is reason to believe that recent reports on natural gas production are exaggerated. Berman said that he does not expect the yields from wells to be high enough or to last long enough to make the gas shales very profitable, even if gas prices rise.
Berman’s views clash with those of other analysts, who predict that natural gas will play a key role in easing concerns about declining oil supplies. The Potential Gas Committee at the Colorado School of Mines stated in June that US natural-gas reserves total nearly 2,000 trillion cubic feet, an increase of about 30 percent over 2006 estimates; while no less an energy expert than T. Boone Pickens has touted natural gas as the next big thing. In an article he penned for the Salt Lake Tribune, Pickens asserted that “Every study of natural gas reserves indicates we have not just an abundance, but a super-abundance of natural gas in traditional fields and in shale deposits under Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Appalachia.”
Not just an abundance, but a super-abundance. Pickens goes on to make the claim that natural gas can rescue the United States from dependence on foreign oil. “The most recent study showed that the amount of energy stored in our recoverable natural gas reserves exceeds the amount of energy in all of the oil in Saudi Arabia. That means we are closer than ever to energy independence, but only if we have the national will to utilize our natural gas reserves.”
Of course, Pickens may have his own reasons for painting such a pretty picture of the US natural gas industry. As HeatingOil.com reported last week, many critics say that Pickens’ interest in the industry—along with his much-touted Pickens Plan, which would use natural gas to power the 6.5 million diesel trucks on America’s roads—is spurred more by financial self interest than by concern for the well-being of Americans. Indeed, we ought to take Pickens’ claims with a few grains of salt. For instance, his claim that “Natural gas is much cleaner than gasoline and produces virtually no particulate emissions…” Is this true—or too good to be true?
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), natural gas—which, like coal, is a fossil fuel—produces 43 percent fewer carbon emissions for each unit of energy produced, and 30 percent less than oil. While this is certainly an improvement over both coal and oil, it in no way supports Pickens’ claim that gas is virtually emissions-free. Furthermore, the UCS tells us that the combustion of gas produces nitrogen oxides, a cause of smog and acid rain. “And while carbon emissions are lower, natural gas itself is a powerful greenhouse gas. Natural gas (methane) is much more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere, 58 times more effective on a pound-for-pound basis. Methane concentrations have increased eight times faster than carbon dioxide, doubling since the beginning of the industrial age.” This hardly sounds like much of an improvement over current fossil fuels.
It is also important to remember that natural gas is a fossil fuel—thus, it is not a renewable resource. For this reason, gas is subject to the same decline model as oil. Eventually, a moment of ‘peak gas production,’ at which time demand for gas would begin to outstrip gas production. And because recent speculation concerning exactly how much gas is contained in US mines has been contested, there’s no telling how long the US could survive on gas alone.