Natural Gas from Shale: The Next Energy Boom? The New Climate Solution?

Steve Levine has an interesting article in TNR touting shale gas as the Next Big Thing in the energy world. He predicts falling oil prices (as low as $30/barrel) and geopolitical dislocations.  He does observe, however, that there are some unresolved environmental issues.  Some of those issues are addressed in a programmatic EIS that’s available on-line.  The economics of coal versus shale is discussed here.

According to Climate Progress,

The bottom line is staggering. As one of the presenters put it, “If the current trend continues” for production of unconventional gas, then by 2020 “natural gas could displace half of the coal burning power plants.” If that is true, and the projections by the other experts were comparable, then natural gas alone could essentially meet the entire Waxman-Markey CO2 target for 2020 — without requiring gobs of new power plants to be sited and built or thousands of miles of new transmission lines.

With equal enthusiasm, the Telegraph hails new “magical” technologies for extracting shale gas, and adds:

Natural gas has much lower CO2 emissions than coal, even from shale – which is why the Sierra Club is backing it as the lesser of evils against “clean coal” (not yet a reality). The US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said America may not need any new coal or nuclear plants “ever” again.

Still, as Steve Weissman said in an earlier post on the subject,”there are enormous questions as to whether the nation can have its shale cake and eat it, too.” Let’s hope that the current hoopla all turns out to be true — or even halfway true.  Expanded natural gas supply isn’t a long-term climate solution, but it would certainly help us through the next couple of decades.

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Reader Comments

3 Replies to “Natural Gas from Shale: The Next Energy Boom? The New Climate Solution?”

  1. I think the TNR article and this one overlooks the lack of evidence of unconventional gas as a climate change ‘solution’. The Sierra Club has been touting this without evidence as has the NRDC (perhaps b/c of conflicts amongst their board of directors or because they support hydrocarbon power politics more than their own (environmental) missions.

    see Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Natural Gas from Marcellus Shale

    http://www.eeb.cornell.edu/howarth/Howarth_Energy%20and%20Environment.html

  2. Dan,

    I’m sorry but you need to post a correction. It’s important, perhaps the general public shares this misunderstanding.

    Oil shale–the very dirty stuff referred to in Steve Weissman’s post you cite and the picture included in your post–and the shale formations that are newly exploitable sources of natural gas are two completely different things. The oil shale is a unique geological formation in NW CO, SW WY, and NE UT with huge amounts of oil–three times the Arabian oil fields–locked up into the rock. John McPhee once wrote that getting the oil out of the oil shale will involve the “total rearrangement” of all that land up there.

    The natural gas discoveries leading to the new boom are coming from widespread deposits of a different kind of shale–lots across the south, up and down Appalachia. Fracture fluids and horizontal drilling are used to release the natural gas from the shale.

    It’s been obvious for a several years that this could replace coal and meet the W-M 2020 targets. In fact, W-M might delay that process. According to Climate Progress there is enough excess capacity in natural gas power plants already built to do this. Until recently, utilities ran coal plants full bore because coal was cheaper and utilities are often required to go with the cheapest fuel. But that has changed. More and more are turning off the coal plants and turning on the gas plants.

    Beyond the shale gas there are also methane hydrates. I think they are the most abundant fossil fuel on the planet. Clean burning compared to everything else–but what kind of mess created if we ever figure out how to harvest them–I don’t know. Would it be like vacuuming up the ocean floor?

  3. The comment from nyccan is an important caveat. Compared to conventional shale deposits, unconventional shale requires significantly more additional energy to extract. The amount is unknown. There is significant leakage of methane–a very potent greenhouse gas–associated with all natural gas production. And of course, the water and land use issues from this type of energy production.

    Something I have thought about for a long time: Most natural gas is flared off–wasted. Lots of natural gas is collected and then at great energy cost (20%-25%) liquefied and sent to the US or Europe. Why not help producing countries–Nigeria, Iran, Venezuela–off oil and use the natural gas locally?

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Dan Farber

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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