In 1993 Daniel Yergin published a widely acclaimed book on the global oil and gas industry titled “The Prize.” He described natural gas as the Prince of fuels because natural gas is a more recent player in the energy mix of fossil fuels. Natural gas is essentially one molecule, methane. Coal and oil are a mixture of many, many different hydrocarbons.
Roughly one quarter of the energy used in the US comes from natural gas. It is used for process heat and as a raw material for industry, for space heat in residential and commercial buildings, and for electrical generation.
Because of the technological developments of horizontal drilling and shale fracturing, production of natural gas is at an all time high. Projections based on current technology suggest that gas production will expand for 30 or more years before peak production is achieved and then begin a slow decline.
Increased natural gas production has allowed for expanded export markets which may be geopolitically important. European reluctance to stronger sanction on Russia is to a large degree due to their dependence on natural gas from Russia. A US export market in the form of Liquified Natural Gas could help support stronger sanctions.
Increased reliance on natural gas should expand in the economy for a couple of reasons. Natural gas is the cleanest of the fossil fuels. It is not contaminated with a host of impurities such heavy metals and sulfur present in coal and to a lesser extent in oil. Because it is cleaner burning we might expect to see expanded use of natural gas for transportation, especially in urban areas. Natural gas could also replace fuel oil for residential and commercial heating in northeastern United Sates.
A major advantage of natural gas is that it presents a lower global warming potential for an equivalent amount of energy compared to the other fossil fuels.
Natural gas is particularly attractive for the production of electricity. As more and more sustainable energy sources come on line, there is an increased need for rapidly dispatchable power to balance the intermittent nature of solar and wind. Electricity produced from gas turbines can be quickly increased or decreased to match the variable production regimen.
That’s the good news, now for the not so good. The increase in gas production comes entirely from expansion of gas production from fracturing shale formations. Fracturing involves a witch’s brew of water and chemicals plus a material called a proppant. Traditional methods are used to drill a well into a shale formation. Water and other chemicals are pumped into the formation to expand the shale layers where the gas is trapped. The proppant is comprised of small particles like sand or ceramic beads that hold the layers open to allow for gas extraction. There is evidence that the water table has been contaminated with toxic and carcinogenic chemicals in areas near fracturing (fracking) operations.
Another problem comes about when dealing with the used fracking fluids. The only practical disposal of the fracking fluids to date involves reinjection into old oil or gas wells. Injection of these fluids under pressure has been linked to earthquakes in numerous locations both in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world.
As with most things in life there are both risks and benefits to be considered. In the last analysis the cheapest, safest energy is the energy we don’t use. This can be achieved through improvements in energy efficiency.