Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Natural Gas Century

Of all the fossil fuels, natural gas is the cleanest and the least carbon-intensive. Many projections show its usage continuing to increase in coming years even as oil production peaks and climate concerns reduce coal consumption. Unfortunately, proven natural gas reserves will only last a few decades at expected production rates. If only there was more of it around....

The chart above shows trading prices for the December 2009 futures contract. For three years, the market believed that early-winter natural gas was worth somewhere around $9.00 per thousand cubic feet (or MMbtu). Prices spiked last summer and then collapsed; although oil has recovered strongly since then, natural gas remains near its lows, with the market now saying early-winter gas is worth only about $6.00/MMbtu. Something has definitely changed.

That something is unconventional gas reserves. American natural gas production surged last year as increasing numbers of shale gas wells came online. New technology allows drilling in rock previously too impermeable to yield any gas, suddenly changing everyone's calculations around natural gas reserves. New estimates predict that the United States, rather than facing slow but steady production decline, might have enough gas to produce for the rest of the century--a quiet but hugely-important story for the petroleum industry.

This article looks at the international implications; although the author's numbers appear to be off by an order of magnitude, unlocking unconventional gas would completely change Europe's energy picture. But not yet: "while there is no active shale development project outside the US, testing is continuing on the commercial viability of some shales."

More natural gas would mean cheaper natural gas, reducing the appeal of coal; this would be good news from almost every angle. Producing electricity by burning natural gas rather than coal cuts CO2 emissions by roughly 60% and emissions of much nastier stuff (like mercury) to practically nothing. The challenge of replacing our coal-dependent electrical-generation capacity is so enormous that more plentiful gas reserves could actually ensure that natural gas fulfills its hoped-for promise as a bridge fuel to a sustainable future. Compared to many other scenarios, a 21st century fueled by natural gas is one I could handle.

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