In the energy and climate change debate, environmentalists are for the most part united in their feelings about coal (very bad), gasoline (avoid “gas guzzlers”), nuclear energy (scary), hydropower (small is better than big), wind (good unless you worry about birds), solar thermal (nifty) and rooftop solar PV (even niftier). But what about natural gas, which is the source of more of our energy than coal, nuclear or all the renewable sources combined?
“We’re the Rodney Dangerfield of fuels,” says Roger Cooper, executive vice president of policy and planning at the American Gas Association. Meaning that gas gets no respect, nor all that much attention. (The DOE logo, below, includes an oil derrick, wind turbine, hydro and the nuclear symbol, but nothing about gas.
I went to see Cooper and Christopher McGill of the AGA last week because of the news that the domestic supply of natural gas is increasing. A group called the Potential Gas Committee, which is based at the Colorado School of Mines, has just reported that the U.S. has about a 100 year supply of natural gas, assuming we continued to consume it at today’s rates. “That’s the largest future supply ever reported,” McGill said. Just a decade ago, the same group project that the U.S. had a 60 to 65 year supply. The increase is, essentially, a result of new (and controversial) drilling technologies that make it easier to recover the gas from saturated shale rocks that, it turns out, exist all over the country–the Applachachians, Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma and in the Rocky Mountains. “You’re talking about a huge volume of saturated rock that has the potential to be exploited,” McGill said. This New York Times story explains the significance of the new estimates.
My question for the gas association was a simple one: What does the discovery of vast new reserves of natural gas, which is, after all, a fossil fuel, mean when it comes to climate change? A simple question, but the answer is anything but.
Naturally (no pun intended), Cooper and McGill argued that natural gas can help solve the climate change problem—particularly if it is used instead of electricity in people’s homes for space heating, hot-water heating and cooking. It could also serve a role as a bridging fuel that electric utilities would burn instead of coal, while awaiting the development of cost-competitive renewable sources of energy.
“Gas is now. Gas is here,” McGill said. “We have a lower carbon footprint than any other fossil fuels.” He’ll get no argument about that—burning natural gas produces 43% less CO2 than coal and 28% less than fuel oil. What’s more, nearly all of the natural gas burned in the U.S. is produced in this country or in Canada.
The gas guys made another persuasive argument on behalf of natural gas-fueled homes. We are using natural gas today more efficiently than ever because of the increased efficiency of appliances (thanks to programs like Energy Star) and, to a lesser degree, of homes. According to the AGA,
It takes less natural gas to serve 65 million homes today than it took to serve about half that number in 1970.
Homes using natural gas, it turns out, also generate on average fewer greenhouse gas emissions that homes using electricity. Again, according to the AGA, “a typical all-electric home on average produces 10.8 tons of CO2 per year while an all-natural gas home produces 7.2 tons of CO2 per year.” That’s largely because about half of our electricity today is generated by burning coal.
So just as it makes sense to replace your incandescent light bulbs with CFL bulbs, it makes sense to choose natural gas over electrical appliances when replacing broken ones or buying a new home. So in that regard, AGA, which represents natural gas utilities that sell to homes and business, can fairly say that natural gas is part of the climate change solution.
What’s not as clear to me is whether we should applaud the idea that we now have more natural gas available to burn to make electricity. (This question isn’t AGA’s focus, so we didn’t get into it in detail during our conversation.) If we build new natural gas plants instead of coal plants, clearly we are better off when it comes to climate change. But if abundant supplies of relatively low-cost natural gas get in the way of wind or solar or geothermal power, we’re probably worse off.
Further complicating the debate over natural gas is the method used to extract it from shale, known as hydraulic fracturing. It requires drilling deep into the ground and injecting water and chemicals into rock to crack it and allow natural gas to escape; critics say it endangers water supplies. This is way out of my area of expertise but my former FORTUNE colleague, Abrahm Lustgarten, has written extensively about the drilling debate for the nonprofit journalism website, Pro Publica. Here’s one of his stories.
Meanwhile, I learned from reading Andrew Refkin of The Times on his Dot Earth blog that Africa has vast deposits of natural gas which could be used as a substitute for charcoal in home cooking. Charcoal production destroys forests and burning it creates indoor air pollution. Refkin asks:
Why isn’t development of this African gas resource, for both local and global markets, a priority for rich countries that claim they are committed to helping Africa break the bonds of persistent poverty?
One more question about natural gas that should be asked: Can we make it cleaner? Cooper and McGill say we can, and they point to a startup company called Atlantic Hydrogen that says it is developing a “patented plasma technology that removes some of the carbon from natural gas pre-combustion.”
Below, by the way, is the DOE logo without a reference to natural gas. It may be the Rodney Dangerfield of fuels for now but it will likely demand more of our attention going forward.