On January 18, 2010, during the discussion of the Global Energy Outlook panel of the World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland, Mr. Peter Voser, President and CEO of Royal Dutch Shell, pointed out the potential of natural gas that has consistently been downplayed throughout the world as a substantial source of future energy supply. Imagine this: A new technique for drilling into layers of a black rock called shale unlocks vast amounts of previously inaccessible natural gas. As the pace of drilling picks up, the price of natural gas drops and its importance in America’s energy future grows.
This is the dramatic possibility that seems not yet to have been glimpsed by Congress in the discussion of how to reduce dependence on foreign oil, create thousands of jobs and provide energy for the nation’s economy, while reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. If the predictions of so-called “unconventional” natural gas – from shale, coal-bed methane and “tight” formations -- are realized, it will mean a renaissance for natural gas that will provide important economic and environmental benefits.
This is no pipedream. At the end of 2008, U.S. natural gas reserves reached 245 trillion cubic feet, the highest level since 1973. Today unconventional natural gas, mainly from shale, accounts for 40 percent of U.S. natural gas production, and it’s climbing fast. Experts estimate the United States has proven and potential supplies of natural gas to last 100 years.
The natural gas revolution began only recently. Two years ago energy companies developed an innovative way to recover natural gas from shale. They combined two long-used drilling and well completion techniques - horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing - to tap into enormous natural gas deposits in the Barnett shale that underlies North Texas and the Marcellus shale that extends through parts of New York State, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. What had previously been a tiny flow of natural gas turned into a bonanza with production from thousands of wells.
Now companies are gearing up to expand drilling in the giant Haynesville shale in northern Louisiana and the Fayetteville shale in Arkansas. Proven and potential supplies of unconventional gas underlie every region of the United States.
We use more natural gas today than at any time in our history. Gas accounts for 22 percent of our electricity production. Most heavy industries rely on natural gas for production and space heating and it’s economic value is likely to become even more pronounced as coal use declines and the expansion of nuclear power stalls as a result of higher than anticipated costs to build new plants.
Natural gas producers are learning how to do more with less. With improvements in efficiency, they have reduced the time it takes to drill a shale-gas well from 17 days down to 11 days. There are also fewer drilling rigs, yet gas production has continued to rise over the past few years. A combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing made this possible.
Hydraulic fracturing involves the injection of high-pressure fluid, mainly water mixed with sand and various chemical compounds, to break through shale in order to reach deposits of natural gas. But the process has come under attack from emotional (not scientific) environmental groups engaged in irrational fear-mongering. They claim the process poses a danger to groundwater systems. It should be pointed-out that there are no documented cases of groundwater contamination caused by hydraulic fracturing. Groundwater systems are typically separated vertically from gas-bearing shale by thousands of feet of rock.
Environmentalists who are determined to stop the use of hydraulic fracturing seem to disregard the consequences of their actions. Those who look to renewable energy resources as the answer to our energy needs ignore the fact that neither solar nor wind energy can provide electricity 24 hours a day every day. Solar and wind systems provide energy only intermittently, requiring gas turbines for back-up when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.
Yet due to the hoopla over renewable energy sources, natural gas has been largely relegated to the sidelines in the congressional debate on climate-change legislation. That screams gross ignorance and a closed mind attitude. Natural gas has less than half of the carbon content of coal, and electric utilities should be encouraged to switch to the cleaner burning fuel. To have the natural gas reserve base suddenly expand and not make use of it would be a mistake.
We cannot afford to risk the consequences of holding back the production of plentiful natural gas. With new drilling techniques we can have inexpensive energy and a cleaner environment – together.
W. Jack Ford
Certified Petroleum Geologist
Certified Professional Geologist
Licensed Professional Geologist