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Blog item: FOREWORD: Will Natural Gas Fuel America In The 21st Century?

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5 comments, last: Jun-19-2011   Add a comment   Author: GuestWriter (May-14-2011)
Categories: Economic/Financial, Pollution, Renewable Energy Sources

This is Richard Heinberg's Foreward to our brand new report 'Will Natural Gas Fuel America in the 21st Century?' by Post Carbon Fellow David Hughes.

Post Carbon Institute undertook this report in order to examine three widespread assumptions about the role that natural gas can and should play in our energy future:

  • Assumption #1: That, thanks to new techniques for hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling of shale, we have sufficient natural gas resources to supply the needs of our country for the next 100 years.
  • Assumption #2: That the price of natural gas, which has historically been volatile, will remain consistently low for decades to come.
  • Assumption #3: That natural gas is much cleaner and safer than other fossil fuels, from the standpoint of greenhouse gas emissions and public health.
Based on these assumptions, national energy officials at the Energy Information Administration (EIA) foresee a major expansion of natural gas in the coming decades. President Obama touted natural gas as a cornerstone of his Administration's "Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future" [1] and endorsed plans for converting a sizable portion of the vehicle fleet to run on natural gas. [2] Some environmental groups, rightfully concerned about the greenhouse gas emissions of coal, have called for large-scale replacement of coal-fired power plants with those that burn natural gas, despite increasing concern over the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing.
 
As this report details, all of these assumptions and recommendations need to be re-thought. What emerges from the data is a very different assessment.
 
But if this report is right, then how could mainstream energy analysts have gotten so much so wrong? It is not our purpose to analyze in detail the social, political, and economic process whereby public relations became public policy. Nevertheless it is fairly easy to trace the convergence of interests among major players. First, the shale gas industry was motivated to hype production prospects in order to attract large amounts of needed investment capital; it did this by drilling the best sites first and extrapolating initial robust results to apply to more problematic prospective regions. The energy policy establishment, desperate to identify a new energy source to support future economic growth, accepted the industry's hype uncritically. This in turn led Wall Street JournalTime Magazine60 Minutes, and many other media outlets to proclaim that shale gas would transform the energy world. Finally, several prominent environmental organizations, looking for a way to lobby for lower carbon emissions without calling for energy cutbacks, embraced shale gas as a necessary "bridge fuel" toward a renewable energy future. Each group saw in shale gas what it wanted and needed. The stuff seemed too good to be true—and indeed it was.
 
The biggest losers in this misguided rush to anoint shale gas as America's energy savior are members of the public, who need sound energy policy based on realistic expectations for future supply, as well as sound assessments of economic and environmental costs.
 
Implications for the National Energy Conversation
It is understandable that the shale gas industry would fudge supply and price forecasts in the interest of drumming up investment capital. However, the EIA is supposed to be an impartial purveyor of data and analysis. Yet that organization has historically been overly optimistic with regard to fossil fuel supplies and prices. During the past decade several non-profit energy groups, including Post Carbon Institute, warned that depletion of giant oilfields and declining oil discoveries would lead to a situation of higher petroleum prices and tight supplies beginning before 2010. Indeed, a leveling off of world crude oil production and a simultaneous steep rise in oil prices during the past few years have arguably marked the most significant shift in the history of the petroleum industry—a shift whose consequences continue to ripple throughout the entire global economy. Yet EIA oil forecasts in the early years of the decade contained no hint of this impending and wholly foreseeable supply-price shift. In our view, the EIA is making similar mistakes in its too-rosy projections with regard to shale gas supplies and natural gas prices.
 
Anti-fracking rally
Signs at rally in opposition to hydraulic fracturing, Albany NY [3]
 
With mounting evidence of the environmental and human health risks of shale gas production, environmental groups are rightfully questioning the "cleanliness" of shale gas. But if these groups focus their arguments only on the contamination of ground water supplies of shale gas without at the same time questioning the economics of shale gasdrilling, they will have helped set up conditions for a political battle that could undermine their own influence and credibility. Political interests traditionally funded by the oil and gas industries will once again claim that environmentalism is the only thing standing between Americans and energy security. And if environmentalists are successful in enacting regulations to minimize the risks of water contamination without clarity about the full lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of natural gas, they may inadvertently exacerbate the very crisis they are trying to address. 
 
The stark reality we face is that humanity has embarked on the era of extreme energy, where there are no simple solutions. The inexpensive, high-yield fossil fuels that powered the industrial revolution and that helped make the U.S. the world's wealthiest and most powerful nation are dwindling, and all of them emit dangerous levels of greenhouse gases. While enormous amounts of natural gas, oil, and coal remain, the portions of those fuels that were cheapest and easiest to produce are now mostly gone, and producing remaining reserves will entail spiraling investment costs and environmental risks. Moreover, while alternative energy sources exist—including nuclear, wind, and solar—these come with their own problems and trade-offs, and none is capable of replicating the economic benefits that fossil fuels delivered in decades past. There is no likely scenario in which the decades ahead will see energy as abundant or as cheap as it was in decades past. [4]
 
None of the major participants in our national energy discussion wants to utter that dismal truth. Yet continued appeals to wishful thinking merely squander opportunities to pre-adapt gracefully and painlessly to a lower-energy future.
 
The Unavoidable Solution: Energy Conservation
It is past time for policy makers to get serious about the most important strategy we can and must adopt in order to succeed in this new era—energy conservation. Reducing demand for energy and using energy more efficiently are the cheapest and most effective ways of cutting carbon emissions, enhancing energy security, and providing a stable basis for economic planning.
 
Unfortunately, energy supply limits and demand reduction do not support robust economic growth. This is probably the main reason why policy makers and many energy analysts and environmentalists shy away from conveying the real dimensions of our predicament. However understandable this response may be from a political perspective, it is one that only compromises our prospects as a nation and a species. There is much we can do to ensure a secure social and natural environment in a lower-energy context, but we are unlikely to take the needed steps if we are laboring under fundamentally mistaken assumptions about the amounts of energy we can realistically access, and the costs of making that energy available.
 


[1] The White House, Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future (Washington DC, 2011).
[2] Dave Michaels, "Obama Endorses Pickens Plan for Natural Gas Vehicles," The Dallas Morning News, March 30, 2011, accessed May 3, 2011.
[3] Photo by B. Campbell, under Creative Commons license (by-nc-sa).
[4] See Richard Heinberg, Searching for a Miracle: "Net Energy" Limits and the Fate of Industrial Society, A Joint Project of the International Forum on Globalization and the Post Carbon Institute, September 2009.
Source: http://www.postcarbon.org/article/330223-foreword-will-natural-gas-fuel-america  
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Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Jun-19-2011)   Web site
I heard a credible researcher on NPR saying that one study had found only natural gas infiltrating residents' tap water, not the other chemicals. However, methane is toxic and can also cause explosions and fire, so it is not trivial. In addition, all the other chemicals used may not reach the water in a month or a year, but over time, where else will they go? Most people get their water from local wells using underground aquifers.
  
Comment by: City Worker (Jun-19-2011)   

Thanks. That makes sense. Yes, I was very glad to see some people in the street trying to expand the number of vocal people on the issue. I was a bit disappointed that the canvasser had never seen the Jon Stewart interview with the person from “Gaslands” (that’s all I asked – I don’t know if she’d seen the video “Gaslands.”) Also, either she or I had it wrong of what was the biggest problem of frakking. From what she said, it sounded like if they could dispose of the toxic chemicals without leakage, there would be no problem there. Also, she seemed to think the natural gas in the water supply was making the people ill (I hadn’t gotten that impression before, although I suppose anything in drinking was that can ignite the water couldn’t be good). I shouldn’t complain though. I was pleasantly surprised to see someone out there discussing the issue.
  
Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Jun-19-2011)   Web site

Don't know anything about Environment New York... I would have to say that if they are trying to fight the current unrestricted gas extraction (as seen in other states than New York), they are fighting for a good cause. I think it is hard for any one group to change legislative thinking... only a large number of vocal people will overcome the pre-set thinking, and the corporate lobbying and campaign money, until the day comes when those who are in office become far more aware, and therefore, far more concerned about our health and the survival of a decent way of life.
  
Comment by: City Worker (Jun-18-2011)   

I came across a canvasser from Environment New York yesterday. I believe she said that a one-year moratorium on large scale hyraulic fracturing in upstate New York would end if legislature wasn't passed soon. So, it's not a fait accompli. Although I supported the group, I was wondering how good they are.
  
Comment by: City Worker (May-17-2011)   

I was just watching on the news today that they’re planning on beginning, within the next month or two, some hydraulic fracturing that will affect New York’s water supply. Oh horrors. And what is the public’s reaction? A large percentage of the population hasn’t heard of hydraulic fracturing. About 1/3 of the people in upstate New York are FINE WITH having the water supply destroyed (the New York City residents, however, are almost entirely against it). It looks like we could be in big trouble.

  
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About author/contributor GuestWriter

PlanetThoughts.org welcomes occasional articles and opinion pieces from writers who are not regular contributors. Their contributions will be listed under the "GuestWriter" name, and additional attribution will be shown in accordance with the agreement with the original writer and source of the PlanetThought.
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