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The Potential of Natural Gas as a Future Energy Source

The Potential of Natural Gas as a Future Energy Source

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

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  • Anonymous on February 20 2010 said:
    You say that the CEO of Shell pointed out the potential of natural gas. What else could he do. I would be very surprised indeed however if he concluded that the United States has 100 years of reserves. That sounds too far fetched for even a member of the Shell executive suite. At the same time I'm ready to admit that we really and truly need that gas - though not here in Sweden. Nuclear and hydro are fine.
  • Anonymous on March 22 2011 said:
    The next generation fuel for automobiles will be natural gas. Electricity is an inefficient fuel for cars. That may change in 50 or 100 years. But it will not change soon. Natural gas vehicles already exist. The technology is proven...the cost would quickly become low as the market changes. All other solutions are too expensive and not ready.
  • Anonymous on March 22 2011 said:
    I'm afraid the Japanese are going to need a lot of natural gas to replace generating capacity lost when the Fukushima reactors were ruined. Natural gas fired gas turbines can be set up rather quickly, compared to anything else. It may well be that the best we can expect is for the Japanese to use natural gas-fired turbines for a few years, but also (if somehow they can raise the necessary capital) construct new nuclear power plants. Since you can use natural gas but not nuclear power to propel a car (unless the car is pure electric and your local power plant is nuclear), using NG to generate electricity may well be like using a luxury cruise ship as a bulk cargo carrier.
  • Anonymous on March 22 2011 said:
    I strongly believe that due to the situation in Japan, Nuclear energy would suffer a draw back. More consideration would be given to Natural Gas, and Natural gas would become more important in the energy mix.
  • Anonymous on March 23 2011 said:
    Be careful what you ask for, Asekhame. A possible problem with natural gas is, the more we use, the more LNG carriers you're going to see on the high seas. Even the most passionate supporter of nuclear energy would agree that natural gas, whatever safety issues it may have, at least isn't radioactive. But beware: A terrorist attack, an attack by pirates, or an accident involving a huge LNG tanker, could result in a very powerful explosion. Such a disaster would result in an awful lot of people not wanting LNG tankers anywhere near where they live.
  • Hoppy on October 05 2012 said:
    I don't think we'd need to be worried about explosions on tankers. When transported, it is cooled down to a liquid, which would make an explosion much less violent.
  • Manni on July 30 2013 said:
    I drive Natural gas vehicles for many years and was not a fan of it. These vehicle are very dangerous in terms when they get in accident a lot of these car either get exploded or burn to ground in matter if seconds because this Big fiber glass cylinder in the trunk has compress NG when hit exploded. I bought 2008 civic NGV brand new got in accident from back and luckily the car was low on the NG which help me and my wife run on side and the gas start leaking from the cylinder. Secondly these tanks take atleast 10 mins to fill and then go max 200 miles. Im sure NG is good for industrial usage but I don't recommend any of use in cars. many countries are using NGV for a while and now moving away from it after soo many people died in acceidents., Pakistan and india is one big example.

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