Natural gas is being touted as a fuel of the future, a way to bridge the gap between a dirty energy and clean energy economy. But according to numerous articles and a report from David Hughes at the Post-Carbon Institute, what we may have is another bridge to nowhere (page numbers in this post refer to Hughes' study). Fracking, the rapidly expanding technique for pulling natural gas out of the ground, may be worse for global warming than coal, ultimately very expensive, and not productive enough to make much of a difference in natural gas supply anyway.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a 60-year old technique that has recently been applied to the huge deposits of what is called shale, a form of rock that can contain large amounts of natural gas or oil. Now natural gas companies are drilling thousands of these wells, fracturing the shale, and pumping millions of gallons of water laced with hundreds of chemicals to release the natural gas (pages 22-24).
While burning natural gas emits about half the greenhouse gases of coal, transporting, processing, and delivering that gas significantly reduces its advantages. And methane -- natural gas -- is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide for about 20 years. According to a recent study and other research, shale gas actually leads to more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional drilling.
The main problem seems to be that the drilling companies and trucking companies do a sloppy job and let gas escape into the atmosphere – and into drinking water. This was best exemplified in the movie GasLand, which showed that people near drilling sites could light their tap water on fire.
An enormous controversy has erupted around this technique, with some making accusations of potentially catastrophic environmental impacts, while others call fracking a ”game changer." A new study shows that drinking water near fracking sites contains large amounts of natural gas, while proponents claim that none of the toxic chemicals that make up the fracking mixture have contaminated water supplies. New York State has temporarily banned the procedure, although Governor Cuomo has indicated he will lift the ban for most of the state. New Jersey (and France) will probably ban it. The EPA is still studying the issue, but Dick Cheney and company made sure that fracking is not covered by the Safe Drinking Water Act, and states have less expertise, money and motivation to monitor the situation.
The Federal Energy Information Administration (EIA) gets more and more bullish about the prospects for shale gas, recently claiming that 45% of natural gas in this country will come from shale gas by 2034. Currently, the number is only 25% (pages 28-30). But according to the New York Times, this opinion is contested from within the agency itself. There are signs that the EIA is following the lead of the natural gas industry, not doing independent research. Meanwhile, the current price for natural gas, about 4 dollars per thousand cubic feet (mcf), is below the level needed to make shale gas profitable for most drilling – costs estimates range from a bit over 4 dollars to an average of 7 dollars and even 11 dollars per mcf (page 31). And many fracking firms are now moving to drill for oil, not gas, because the price for gas is too low to justify the added expense.
Some fracking advocates claim that we could switch our transportation system to be natural gas based. But to do that would require a doubling of our natural gas production (pages 52-54). Despite all the hype, even the EIA seems to think that natural gas production in this country will only increase from about 24 trillion cubic feet to about 26 trillion by 2034 (page 29). That isn't enough to even keep up with the anticipated demand, and basically shale gas production will make up for declining conventional gas production, assuming there is as much shale gas as advertised. As David Hughes explains, the EIA is grossly underestimating the amount of wells that would have to be drilled. Recently that number has climbed as high as 30,000 per year(page 19). If half of those use fracking techniques, and a good percentage of those use millions of gallons of water that become toxic – well, it certainly doesn't sound like a very sustainable solution.
Even if we wanted to make the switch, getting gas from there to here poses its own challenges. The only way to do it is with liquified natural gas (LNG); that is, cooling it way down to liquid form, putting it on a big ship that keeps it cool, and warming it back up when it gets here. It has been estimated that LNG adds enough greenhouse gas emissions that the natural gas has about the same emissions as coal. It is also more expensive than domestic gas, and it also means the US would become dependent on nations like Qatar, Russia, and -- hmmm, Iran -- than we might want to be.
Another strike against natural gas: wind is getting very cost competitive. Wind could form the backbone of a national electrical system, with gas used for those times when there isn't enough wind blowing – although the more wind built in the more places, the less gas would be needed for this purpose. A new report suggests that solar panels on buildings could be used to substitute for gas used at peak usage times, say when air conditioners are going full blast, at pretty close to the same price.
There is one interesting technology that could make natural gas more sustainable: microturbines. These are systems that are installed in a large building -- say, an apartment building that has 60 or more apartments, according to the New York Times. These can use any source of natural gas, such as natural gas generated from a building's own waste, or from landfills. And because the turbine is in the building, the heat from the turbine can be used to heat air and water, in a process called co-generation. Up to about 80% of the energy from natural gas can be captured by these units, as opposed to the miserable 32% or so when centralized gas or coal plants generate electricity. Many European countries, such as Denmark, use district heating, a method of using the heat from energy production to warm neighborhoods. This is a reason that density in cities and towns can be more efficient than sprawl.
Even if natural gas emitted “only” half the greenhouse gases of coal, or if fracking turns out to be not as toxic as feared, and relatively profitable, natural gas would still not be a “game changer”: we need to take greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, not put any more in; we shouldn't be endangering our water supplies. and we can find renewable sources of energy that, in the long run, make much more economic sense. Not only will natural gas not be the fuel of the future, we won't be using much fuel. Instead we will use renewable sources of energy from the sun, wind, and the earth.
Jon Rynn is the author of the book Manufacturing Green Prosperity: The power to rebuild the American middle class, available from Praeger Press. He holds a Ph.D. in political science and is a Visiting Scholar at the CUNY Institute for Urban Systems.