Climate

Climate action game changer, Part 1: Is there a lot more natural gas than previously thought?

I have been researching what may be the single biggest game changer for climate action in the next two decades — U.S. natural gas supply.  Last week I attended a workshop where some of the country’s leading gas experts presented the remarkable new projections for near- and medium-term supply and then answered questions from some of the country’s top energy experts.

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.

There is simply no doubt that, other than energy efficiency and conservation, the lowest-cost option for achieving large-scale CO2 reductions by 2020 is simply replacing electricity produced by burning coal with power generated by burning more natural gas in the vast array of currently underutilized gas-fired plants (as I will discuss in more detail in Part 2).  Natural gas is the cheapest, low-carbon baseload power around.

And it’s not just suppliers and industry experts calling for a major expansion of natural gas.  In its detailed analysis of how the U.S. can quickly slash CO2 emissions and transition off of coal without building new nukes, Energy [R]evolution, Greenpeace (!) assumes a 50% growth in natural gas power generation by 2020.

UPDATE:  I should note that a modern natural gas combined cycle plant has 60% or more lower CO2 emissions per kilowatt-hour than a typical coal plant — and substantially lower (if not near-zero) emissions of a variety of toxic pollutants harmful to human health, perhaps most notably mercury.  That’s why it is widely seen, even by groups as green as Greenpeace, as a plausible transition fuel for the next two to three decades as we aggressively ramp up wind, solar PV, concentrated solar thermal, biomass, geothermal, and other ultra-low-carbon energy sources.

The explosion in unconventional gas supply is being led by so-called shale gas (see Wikipedia entry here).  Significantly, candidate Obama’s energy plan actually called for “early identification of any infrastructure obstacles/shortages or possible federal permitting process delays to drilling in “Unconventional natural gas supplies in the Barnett Shale formation in Texas and the Fayetteville Shale in Arkansas.”  But shale gas extends way beyond those two plays:

Everyone who cares about clean energy and climate issues needs to become knowledgeable on shale gas — both its supply potential and the environmental risks associated with extracting it.  Where to start?  I’m glad you asked.

On Thursday, June 4 at 10 AM, “The House Natural Resources Committee, Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, led by Rep. Jim Costa (D-CA), will hold an oversight hearing on “Unconventional Fuels, Part I: Shale Gas Potential.”

This hearing will be webcast live on the Committee’s Web site at: http://resourcescommittee.house.gov/.

Witnesses:

Mr. Douglas Duncan
Associate Coordinator, Energy Resources Program
United States Geological Survey

Mr. Scott Kell
President
Ground Water Protection Council

Mr. Mike John
Vice President of Corporate Development and Government Relations, Eastern Division
Chesapeake Energy Corporation

Mr. Lynn Helms
Director, Oil and Gas Division
North Dakota Industrial Commission

Mr. Albert F. Appleton
Infrastructure and Environmental Consultant
Former Director of the New York City Water and Sewer System

This looks to me to be a very good place to start.  E&E Daily (subs. req’d) has more on the hearing:

Lawmakers on a House Natural Resources subcommittee this week will hear testimony about the potential of the nation’s vast natural gas reserves in shales to contribute to U.S. energy supplies, as drillers continue their rush to tap unexplored plays like the Marcellus in Appalachia and the Haynesville in Louisiana despite the economic downturn and depressed oil and gas prices….

… the plays have only recently become economically feasible to develop as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technology has progressed.

And some scientists have said the shales’ potential to contribute to U.S. energy supplies is vast. Researchers have estimated the Marcellus to hold some 50 trillion cubic feet of natural gas — one-fourth of total U.S. proven reserves — locked away in the tightly packed, fine-grained rock. And the Haynesville play could be the largest in the United States if estimates of its potential 250 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas are correct.

Shale plays could produce 15 billion to 20 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day within a decade, according to Terry Ruder, vice chairman of the Natural Gas Supply Association. Americans use about 60 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day, he said at a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission conference last fall

But as with any major energy resource, legitimate environmental concerns exist:

Those testifying will likely also field questions about the production technology’s effect on water supplies and the environment.

Democrats in Congress are currently pushing legislation that would repeal natural gas drilling technology’s exemption from clean water regulations.

Congress exempted hydraulic fracturing from the Clean Water Act in 2005 after a U.S. EPA study determined the process posed little risk to water supplies. But environmentalists say that study is flawed and the exemption poses health risks because of the chemicals used (Greenwire, Jan. 21).

Industry is staunchly opposed to such legislation, saying such a bill would increase costs, strain development and reduce jobs in the burgeoning field.

So tune into the hearing for introductory course in shale gas, costs and benefits.

I’ll be posting more this month on this important subject — and I very much welcome recommendations for studies and articles to read.

58 Responses to Climate action game changer, Part 1: Is there a lot more natural gas than previously thought?

  1. Year 2200 man says:

    Sounds horrendous. I thought the idea was to get off fossil fuels, not find more of them.

    One way or another we have to get off fossil fuels eventually, if only because they will run out some time. The sooner the better in my opinion.

  2. Bill Woods says:

    “Natural gas is the cheapest, low-carbon baseload power around.”

    Blink; low carbon?

    What I’ve been wondering is whether shale gas is something unique to North America, or — more likely — there are similar resources in Europe and China.

    [JR: It is everywhere, though unclear yet how exploitable. I will blog on it in this series.]

  3. Theodore says:

    Winston Churchill said: “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”

    The right thing is solar thermal power. Gas is one more unwelcome delay and an unneccessary side trip to an incorrect destination.

    It should be completely illegal to develop any new carbon fuel resource, starting right now.

  4. Alex J says:

    Well, lower carbon anyway. I wouldn’t be opposed to it in regions where renewables can’t significantly displace coal in the near future. Throw in some plug-in hybrids etc. and we have a start.

  5. James Newberry says:

    Simple question: Why would one of the largest multi-national petroleum companies on Earth, Shell, have recently proposed a giant floating LNG terminal for the middle of Long Island Sound so gas that would be refrigerated, compressed and shipped across the world’s oceans could be off-loaded to a network of underwater gas pipelines when all they needed to do was drill in Pennsylvania?

    [JR: Unconventional gas has only exploded onto the scene in a serious way in the last couple of years. LNG terminals have been in the works for years. Shale gas will kill virtually all of them — and that is a very good thing!]

    Surprise, surprise. Just as the writing gets clearer for a clean energy revolution, some kind of unknown supply of the cleaner burning fossil fuel just happens to show up. Has anyone heard of the term “bait and switch?” Stop and proceed with extreme caution.

    [JR: I liked the X-Files — and Lost — but can’t really buy into conspiracies. I can buy into strategies that dramatically reduce greenhouse gases and other pollutants.]

  6. waynemac3 says:

    There’s lot of talk about the huge amount of gas in the Marsallis shale deposits in Pa.but many of us are concerned about the environmental damage that may be caused by the drilling. In order to hydrofrac these wells it will require millions of gallons of water per well. Many of these wells will be in wilderness areas containing stream headwaters will low flows to begin with. In addition there will be well slurry that will need to be stored and treated. So while gas may be promising, there’s a trade off. People in Pa and W.Va and N.Y. need to caution their public officials to move slowly with the permitting of wells to make sure that we protect our water resources.

  7. Tom says:

    Filed under “Climate Progress: Humor”? Huh?

    [JR: My new version of word press occasionally acts up by adding categories.]

  8. Steven Biel says:

    Wouldn’t it be great if there was a law that gave EPA the power to require coal plants to switch to natural gas? I know, it’s completely pie in the sky.

  9. Rick Covert says:

    David Hughs of the Canadian Geological Survey disagrees about available gas in North America. At the 2006 Peak Oil conference he stated that North America has about a ten year supply of natural gas.

    Then there’s the problem of what happens to the cost of everything else we produce from amonium nitrate fertilizer to plastics to drugs if we start increasing the share of natural gas to generate electricity.

    Then there’s the problem of what happens to those gas generating electrical plants, which granted, have a lower carbon foot print when we need to make further cuts in CO2 emissions after all the coal plants are shuttered. Won’t the utilities and the oil and gas industry fight tooth and nail, like the coal companies are, to pressure a future US administration to keep them open in spite of the need to reduce CO2 emissions even futher below the levels generated by those plants?

  10. Matt Dernoga says:

    I actually started my own series on natural gas here:

    http://madrad2002.wordpress.com/2009/05/31/natural-gas/

    I’ve seen contrasting perspectives on what role natural gas will play, and what role it should play in a low-carbon future. My first post was just introducing the issue, but the second is coming soon which will lay out all the facts, pro+con when it comes to natural gas from an environmental, climate, and national security perspective. The third will be the final opinion on the matter from myself.

    I look forward to seeing what you’ve got to say about the matter Joe.

  11. Jay Alt says:

    As I have mentioned here, we should retrofit some peaking NG plants and make them solar-assisted hybrids> That could cut emissions additionally.

    The downside to pie-in-sky NG projections is we only need to contaminate the water table across the entire west, PA, WV and Appalachia to get it done. ‘Fracking’ forever! For those who aren’t environmentalists and call themselves pragmatic, that won’t be a problem.

  12. David B. Benson says:

    I suggest converting biomass to methane + acid gas. The methane goes into the so-called natural gas pipelines and the acid gas is sequestered; carbon-negative. There are a few sites in the U.S. and Europe doing this, but so far the acid gas is released to the atmosphere; almost carbon-neutral.

  13. Neil Howes says:

    Joe,
    It would make sense to replace some coal fired power with NG by using existing plants at a higher capacity, providing this allows the older coal-fired plants to be dismantled.
    As wind and solar energy grow, they will be able to complete with marginal costs of NG, and the NG will be able to provide back-up for renewables.
    This can be a win-win for everyone except those in the coal industry, re-training of coal miners and power plant operators for careers in wind turbine manufacturing and maintenance would seem the best solution.

  14. Sasparilla says:

    Natural gas prices tracked oil prices last year – even though we knew we had these huge natural gas reserves. Expect that to continue in the future – natural gas is the easiest Oil replacement fuel.

    Something big would have to happen to shift powerplants from truly cheap/dirty coal to more expensive not as dirty natural gas (whose price should be expected to continue up as Oil continues back up as we come out of the recession and into Peak Oil). I don’t know what that would convince powerplant owners to do that – it sure won’t be WMDD.

    All that said, if we could switch a large amount of coal plants to natural gas quickly – I’ll take it for the CO2 reduction and reduction in mercury etc….but keep moving full speed ahead with the real solutions as well.

  15. paulm says:

    Huh, Is this the 1st of April?

  16. Joe!?! says:

    YOU CAN’T POISON THE EARTH AND CALL IT PROGRESS. Cooler, more poisoned earth?… Is this why I’ve been reading your blog for a year? Are we losing you, buddy?….

  17. Omega Centauri says:

    The unconventional natural gas (UNG for short) takes a great deal of drilling activity to support. Depletion -defined as flow rate over initial flow rate typically declines by 70% in the first year. In order to maintain a constant supply, you got to keep drilling, slack off, and within a few months the supply decreases significantly. The price of NG crashed much more severely than oil -and has not recovered. At even two times current prices no-one can make money drilling UNG. No wonder that drillers are idling rigs as fast as they can.

    So unless you can tame the boom bust cycle, don’t count on a steady supply of the stuff -nor on prices that don’t gyrate drastically.

    Others have mentioned that hydro-fracing has had serious environmental impacts. It’s not just millions of gallons of water per well, but toxic chemicals are added to the water. Landowners and other stakeholders are not going to put up with this for too much longer.

    Now, don’t get me wrong, I think NG which necessarily includes a big fraction of UNG is an important part of any rational energy/climate strategy. I think the best use is for smoothing out the temporal variations of the renewable availability (and demand). Using some combination of natural gas dispatchable load balancing, and demand management would be a lot cheaper than trying to store energy.

    And lets not forget the best source of new natural gas, efficiency. It is very wasteful in a themodynamics sense to burn gas for low grade heat, we need to replace space heating and industrial low grade heat with heat pumps. An air sourced heat pump, powered by natural gas fired electricity is more efficient than a gas furnance -and leaves open the option to be part or fully powered by renewables later on.

  18. jorleh says:

    Some joke? Has Joe gone mad at last?

  19. K L Reddington says:

    Nancy Pelosi encourages use of natural gas. She says it is not a fossil fuel.

    President Bush was followed by Obama who is Severely uneducated about Oil and Gas. Burning natural gas gives of CO2 and H2O. Just like coal.

    Our congressional people from California Seem to need an education on miinerals.

  20. Omega Centauri says:

    Another thing about hybrid solar/ natural gas plants. I’d be very wary about the net efficiency annual KWhrs per cubic foot. Combined cycle natural gas plants can be roughly 70% efficient. If you want to use the same turbine for solar thermal and natural gas, you are almost certain to sacrifice efficiency. Lose too much efficiency and you might consume less fuel with a purely gas fired plant. Please carefully evaluate these proposals on a case by case basis. And reject those for which the solar component is simple greenwashing.

  21. As the climate-friendly fossil fuel, abundant natural gas is unequivocally a good thing…provided we can get it out of the ground without damaging land or groundwater, as we have with coal-bed methane extraction.

    Many coal plant construction permit litigations in America are grounded upon the premise that there are cheaper and cleaner alternatives, invariably a mix of efficiency, wind and some modicum of gas-fired generation for load-following and reliabilit

    Stable supplies of gas+vast wind farms + major transmission = no new coal

  22. Peter Sinclair says:

    Here in my neck of Michigan, two large coal plants have been recently proposed.
    Meanwhile we have nearby, two very large natural gas turbines, already built and paid for,that at one time were base load, but have been relegated to peaking
    status for the last decade due to high gas prices.
    My position has been, why build new coal, when existing, (relatively) low carbon solution exists, if indeed new baseload is needed, as we shut down old coal facilities..
    this will protect consumers from committing to costly new construction, and the certainty of high carbon costs when the inevitable regs take hold.
    Meanwhile, I advocate building our massive wind resource, investigating geological energy storage, a feed-in tariff to bring more diverse sources online, and encouraging geothermal.
    In this way, without building new fossil fuels, we already have a bridge to the renewable future, 10 or 15 or 20 years down the road, when the new sources will be shouldering a much bigger part of the burden.

  23. Jim Beacon says:

    I think Joe got distracted and forgot to clearly state that such a proposal would only be a TRANSITIONAL move to cut the CO2 emissions of our existing coal-fired plants in half *very quickly* and at very little cost.

    Transitional. A quick 50% reduction while we get the real clean energy plants up and running. Be realistic folks, that’s going to take 20 to 30 years even going full-out effort with plenty of federal dollars. Right now non-hydro and non-nuke clean power only makes up 3% of total U.S. electrical demand. It’s going to take decades to get those clean technology plants built in sufficient number to replace the 48% of our electricity that coal provides right now. Do we want those existing plants to continue to burn coal for all those decades, or do we want them burning natural gas instead, which only puts out half as much CO2?

    Don’t kid yourselves that the coal-fired plants are going to be nationalized or shut down or that burning coal is going to be outlawed by the Congress or the EPA. Get real, folks. This is capitalistic America and that just ain’t gonna happen. Not even if people’s front lawns are bursting into spontaneous combustion. Maybe communist China could pull it off, but even that’s very doubtful. We sure won’t do it. But we still need to do *something* about those 600 existing coal-fired power plants.

    Most of the comments above are knee-jerk reactions to the idea of “faking it” by converting from one fossil fuel to another — and that’s understandable. That was my first reaction to the idea. But stop and think about it for a moment: Burning natural gas releases only HALF of what burning coal does. Those 600 coal-fired plants in the U.S. exist today, they are real and right now they are spewing out CO2 24 hours a day.

    Which is a better plan: Spend $60 billion and waste 10 years, trying to retrofit them for carbon capture (which has not worked well after 20 years of trying) or to quickly retrofit them to burn natural gas and CUT their emissions by 50% practically overnight?

    No one is suggesting backing off of the real clean energy push. This plan is in addition to that effort. It is a *practical* short-term transition solution to those existing plants. It doesn’t mean we stop going full-out for all the rest, it just means we could get a whole lot of dirty coal out of the picture faster than anything else would. And that’s what counts, right, not standing righteously on some purist philosophical or political point?

    [JR: Yes, thanks to my 28-month-old, I am easily distracted. But you have explain what I did not.

    I would note that a CCGT has 60% lower CO2 emissions than coal.]

  24. Peter Sinclair says:

    I should say, one of those coal plants, a merchant plant, was canceled, when local industries refused to buy into it – they have costed out coal vs NG, and bet on gas.

  25. jorleh says:

    Once more. Is gas better than nuclear? I think even nuclear is better than fossil fuels.

    Must hope Joe only had a minor stroke…

  26. Leland Palmer says:

    Every little bit helps. Certainly natural gas is much less carbon intensive than coal.

    The methane hydrates constitute huge reserves of natural gas, too- the largest source of fossil carbon on the planet. Too bad we are not presently in a position to take advantage of this huge fossil fuel resource.

    We are in the position of trying to stop a huge truck, just cresting the apex of a hill, with a little tiny brake. Natural gas just eases up on the accelerator a little.

    To stop the truck, we need real brakes, and we need a reverse gear on the truck.

    A reverse gear such as carbon negative energy schemes combining biomass with sequestration.

    Transforming the coal plants to natural gas is better than nothing, but, I don’t think it will stop runaway global warming.

    If done massively enough, though, coal to natural gas conversion could have an impact.

    On an energy basis, too, if CCS was done we would end up with half as much CO2 to sequester. Both oxyfuel combustion and HiPPS would work just fine with natural gas, leading to an exhaust stream containing CO2 and water, with the water easily stripped out.

  27. Jim Beacon says:

    Oh yeah, about environmental damage:

    Obviously we all want any new natural gas exploration and development/exploitation to do as little damage to the environment as possible. But let’s face it: If we don’t convert the coal-burning plants to natural gas, they are going to continue to strip-mine vast quantities of coal and keep blowing the tops off mountains in West Virginia. So I can’t help but think that that no matter what, replacing coal mining with natural gas mining would do far less damange the environments of PA, West Virgina, Appalachia, etc. than what we are doing now (and will continue to do if we don’t replace coal with gas).

    And what’s with the creebing about “yeah, but the price of natural gas will go up?” So what? The price of coal has gone up and will continue to rise. Same for crude oil. Same for the materials to make solar plants and wind farms. The price of anything goes up when demand increases. That little lesson from Economics 101 doesn’t change the fact that something *practical* has to be done about our existing 600 coal-fired power plants (and quickly).

  28. Raleigh Latham says:

    I initially saw this and thought, “What the hell! Why would we encourage burning more fossil fuels!?” However, if natural gas replaces coal plants, and realistically cuts CO2 emissions in power plants by 50%, then it might be a step in the right direction. However, radical action still needs to be taken NOW. Herman-Waxley won’t be enough, Climate change is happening now! California is in a drought, as is the Southwest, Water shortages are happening across the U.S, and fire and parasites are ravaging our forests. Until Obama redirects the entire U.S economy towards saving our future, I encourage everyone to do whatever they can on an individual level, like donate to charities which save Rainforest. Do something. I know it won’t make a massive impact, but at least you can know your doing something about the problem, and just sitting back while it happens before our eyes.

  29. Mike John says:

    Joe

    Thanks – the cheque’s in the mail.

    John

  30. Lynn Helms says:

    Joe,

    Mine too. Keep up the good work.

    Lynn

  31. ecostew says:

    Remember the recent study, which indicated only 25% of existing fossils fuels can be used if a temperature increase of 2C isn’t to be exceeded.

    Also, the very recent statement from 70 national science academies: deep and rapid reductions of carbon dioxide emissions of at least 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050, and much more thereafter or confront an underwater catastrophe.

  32. Ronald says:

    This was posted in Climate Progress Humor section, so I thought I would do an engine search and there in Wikipedia was the same Shale Gas map that was in the article. From authority, I guess Shale Gas is the real thing.

    But is replacing coal with natural gas really the way we want to go?

    This is the equivalent to teaching to the test.

    Go ahead and use up all the natural gas to help meet the first and easiest 20 percent of carbon emissions by switching from natural gas from coal. What is the message that you are sending the people in 2040 to 2050 when they have to reduce from 40 percent 1990 carbon emissions to 20 percent carbon emissions, (or what ever it is) sorry we the smarter people of 2010 took the easy way out and used up all the lower carbon natural gas to meet this emissions target you are on your own.

    One of talking points of using wind power was that it had the ability to reduce the usage of natural gas and thus the price for home heating. I read that even though wind supplied somewhere around one percent of electrical energy, if that was made up with natural gas, natural gas for heating supplies would have been lower. Well, kiss that argument goodbye.

    So now when someone comes up with the next 100 billion dollars to spend, lets put it into drilling for natural gas, building natural gas power plants and buying natural gas to run them. No money left for wind turbines and transmission lines? No money left for greater carbon emissions reductions than natural gas to coal?

    What do you tell China who doesn’t have natural gas reserves like the United States; I guess ‘tough’ would be the word we were planning on using. Well, China might just use the word ‘tough’ when we ask them for emission reductions. And the rest of the world? The United States, the real beacon of sacrifice and principles. This idea is the credit default swaps of carbon emissions.

    Just because you have gone out on a limb to support Waxman-Markey and you may feel obligated to make it work, how Waxman-Markey is made to work is important. Don’t lose sight of what you really want to accomplish.

    [JR: What makes you think China doesn’t have natural gas reserves? In fact, they have a lot of potential shale gas. I hope I have not let anyone the impression I think this replaces the massive energy efficiency and renewable energy effort we need. This is primarily a 2020 and 2030 play. We need to go to near zero emissions in 3 or 4 decades, so that obviously precludes natural gas — unless you can figure out how to capture and store it CO2.

    I do not feel I’ve gone out on a limb on Waxman-Markey.

    I would add that natural gas can help support wind deployment.
    Yes, original posting in humor was a mistake.
    ]

  33. Ronald says:

    sh.

  34. Tyler says:

    As a way to avoid building coal plants, maybe, but CCS should also apply to gas plants and gas should only be a transitional fuel.

    Also concerned about fugitive emissions, which for natural gas is huge and rarely discussed. The natural gas that escapes from pipeline and during production is 21 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2. It’s why claims of natural gas having half the emissions of coal are misleading.

    Best to use natural gas sparingly as an enabler of renewables.

  35. Brooks says:

    Thank you Jim Beacon.

  36. Yuebing says:

    US Coal fired electricity production equals about two trillion kwhs annually. What could we do in parallel with a natural gas powered coal phase out? CHP and Efficiency for starters.

    There are over 60 million households already using natural gas to heat. Renovate the buildings to use about half the natural gas they use now, and put micro CHP every where you can. In 2008 residential use was about 5 trillion cubic feet.

    http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/dnav/ng/ng_cons_sum_dcu_nus_a.htm

    83 million btu heating&etc per household pre renovation, 42 million btu afterwards, and each household also burns and additional 6.8 million btu which makes electricity. 14% efficiency for the electrical production of the CHP, and +95% overall for the combined heat and power. (note to Detroit–America needs your manufacturing capacity)

    Makes 0.12 trillion kwhs from CHP, and frees up 2 trillion cu ft annually, which would make another 0.4 trilion kwhs annually in the underutilized natural gas fleet.

    0.52 trillion kwhs equals one in four coal plants shut down. So far so good.

    Each of the 112 million US households are using about 10,000 kwhs annually. Everyone reading Joe’s blog knows we could cut that in half in about ten years with zero impact on lifestyle, and make money at the same time. New fridges, LCD screens, solar hot water, CFL/LED, etc. That liberates another 1.12 trillion kwhs annually. Two out of four coal plants shut down.

    Use new natural gas to shut down the rest of the coal plants? Yes, if the environmental controls are adequate, and the new pipelines are put in carefully and with full respect for the environment and land owners (little or no chance there between FERC and the alligator shoe crowd)

    Power down every coal plant in the US by 2020?

    from:

    http://pubs.giss.nasa.gov/docs/2008/2008_Hansen_etal.pdf

    A basic assumption underlying Fig. (6) is that, within the next several years, there will be a moratorium on construction of
    coal-fired power plants that do not capture and store CO2, and that CO2 emissions from existing power plants will be phased out
    by 2030. This coal emissions phase out is the sine qua non for stabilizing and reducing atmospheric CO2. If the sine qua non of
    coal emissions phase-out is achieved, atmospheric CO2 can be kept to a peak amount ~400-425 ppm, depending upon the
    magnitude of oil and gas reserves.

  37. Yuebing says:

    Correction to previous coment: Each of the 112 million US households are using about 10,000 kwhs annually. Everyone reading Joe’s blog knows we could cut that in half in about ten years with zero impact on lifestyle, and make money at the same time. New fridges, LCD screens, solar hot water, CFL/LED, etc. That liberates another 0.56 trillion kwhs annually. Two out of four coal plants shut down.

  38. Lou Grinzo says:

    This expanded role for NG is something I’ve been focused on a lot recently, and while I don’t have any in-depth analysis, my view is settling on:

    1. Assuming there really is a sizable and reliable (for at least 25 years) supply from these non-conventional NG reserves, then…

    2. Using it to displace coal fired generation is a good idea (everything is a transition to something else, etc.), but…

    3. Using it to fuel vehicles is not a good idea. You get only about a 25% savings in CO2 emissions vs. gasoline or diesel (based on several field tests with delivery truck fleets), and there’s a pretty sizable cost, in terms of both expanding the refueling infrastructure and the conversion of vehicles and/or vehicle production to run on NG.

    In other words, centralized conversions for a 50% CO2 drop are much better than highly distributed conversions for a 25% drop.

    [JR: Could not agree more!]

  39. Bullwinkle says:

    Thanks, Joe. There is so much dread in AGW and I appreciate a few positive posts. It’s nice to know that there is something we can use to transition ourselves off killer coal. NG seems to be the methadone we need before we go completely cold turkey on fossil fuel.

    [JR: Love the methadone analogy. I may steal borrow it.]

  40. Don’t forget coalbed methane, which is now 10% of U.S. natural gas supplies. There are other sources, as well, which the wikipedia article you linked to alludes to. In fact I’m writing a story on one source of unconventional natural gas at this very moment! I’ll post it in this thread tomorrow, which is when it will probably go up at MIT’s Tech Review.

    Bottom line: if there is the will, there is more than enough natural gas to get us off coal, probably entirely. This is the only realistic less-dirty energy solution in existence that can bridge where we are now and the all-renewable future we need to get to. Even Jeff Sachs is now declaring that the future will be composed of Nukes and Clean Coal, in China at least, because there simply isn’t any way to make the numbers work out for an all-renewable China in the timeframe we need.

    Like it or not, the future is slightly less nasty fossil fuels in existing infrastructure while we ramp up clean energy, and *then* 100% renewables. Building concentrated solar thermal as fast as we can is a fine idea, on paper, but even the communications director of Brightsource, whom I recently interviewed, admitted that it would take one new 1,000 mw solar thermal plant per day for the next decade just to get us off coal. Does anyone here actually see that happening? If your answer is no, then bridge fossil fuels – i.e. natural gas – are the only way to go. This is the people responsible for saving us talking, so unless someone on this thread happens to know more than people actually in the industry, then you’re speaking from ideology and not facts.

  41. Modesty says:

    First, is it just me or is the video part not happening?

    Second, is the following the general idea:

    Premise 1. We have a vast array of under-utilized natural gas power plants; these are under-utilized because of the price of natural gas.
    Premise 2. We have more natural gas than we thought we did.
    Premise 3. Natural gas, including shale gas, is vastly more carbon efficient than coal.
    Conclusion. Provided no regulatory or infrastructure road blocks are in place, there is a chance that the price of natural gas as determined by supply, price of oil, price on carbon, etc. will be competitive relative to coal so as to allow for some of these under-utilized peak plants to be used for baseload power.

    Is this the general idea?

    If so, what’s the action item?

  42. Len Ornstein says:

    Converting coal plants to wood is cheaper than converting them to gas. And if the wood is ‘chosen’ so that it has near zero CO2 footprint (e.g., harvesting fallen trees before they decay) the coal remains in the ground, and burning the wood produces only the same CO2 as decay would have produced. So there is a net effective sequestration of the an amount of CO2 about equal to what burning the coal would have produced – plus the energy of combustion.

    That’s 4 times better than converting to NG!

    The only problem is where to get sufficient amounts of such wood?

    I have a paper in press at the journal, Climatic Change, which shows where. The carbon mass of the trunks of trees that die each year in the old-growth forests of Amazonia and Equatorial Africa equal about 1 to 2 GtC/yr; and such sustainable eco-neutral conservation harvest might be ramped up to about 5GtC/yr.

    A second paper in the same issue, shows that forests on the Sahara and Australian Outback, irrigated with reverse osmosis desalinated seawater, at a cost less than CCS, would capture about 8 GtC/yr, and after the first 10-20 years, could be sustainably harvested ramping up to about that rate ‘forever’. That not only could ‘cure’ AGW, but provides a sustainable source of reduced carbon for energy and synthetic feedstock ‘forever’.

    [JR: Well I’m certainly not calling for building more natural gas plants — I’ll explain this more in part two. Send me your paper when it is published, although I expect it will be controversial to imagine such harvesting can actually be done in an environmentally responsible fashion.]

  43. paulm says:

    >one new 1,000 mw solar thermal plant per day for the next decade just to get us off coal. Does anyone here actually see that happening?

    No. But then again there’s the other side of the equation – consumption.

    What about other countries who don’t have Natural gas on tap. Is America an island? Will they accept fossil fuel reduction and lower standards of living while America lives like a King?

  44. Andy Revkin says:

    The role of natural gas both in fueling poor-country progress and limiting climate risk has been explored for a very long time (often by folks who aren’t on Joe’s “10 Best” list, like Jesse Ausubel. See this post on Dot Earth from last week: http://bit.ly/dotCH4.

    One big question explored in that post: Can expansion of natural gas here survive America’s “shock and trance” energy policy (low prices kill new development)? (Then there are those nimby’s poised to fight pipelines, of course. But that’s for another day.) Thoughts?

    [JR: Andy, I think my posts on peak oil, including today’s, makes clear that, it is only global economic collapse that has kept prices low. The era of “shock and trance” is ending, I think. Now it is going to be “shock and awe,” I’m afraid.

    I would add that what is different about the new news on natural gas is that for over a decade, the consensus among energy opinion makers in this country was that we were facing steady decline in U.S. production. Now there is a very real prospect of near term and medium term growth.]

  45. Greg Staple says:

    Kudos on the shale gas post and the obvious implications for climate policy.

    As others have noted, gas fired power plants already produce electricity that is roughly 50% cleaner than coal. Thus, in the near to midterm, greater use of the country’s existing fleet of gas fired plants would provide very large emission reductions from the power sector. This is especially so if the ramp up of gas was coupled with the phase out of the oldest and generally least efficient coal plants. The Waxman-Markey bill, H.R. 2454, appears to have missed the boat on that score. (For a more detailed review of the economic case for replacing the least efficient coal plants , see Henry Linden’s “Clear Skies For Gas” article in the February 1, 2009 Public Utilities Fortnightly (subscription required))

    You also have to question whether it makes sense under H.R. 2454 to spend billions of taxpayer dollars — tens of millions of free emission allowances — exclusively to subsidize new coal-fired electricity plants that start out by capturing just 50% of their CO2. The most efficient gas fired plants can essentially match that performance standard today. So if clean energy and jobs are the objective, then Congress should encourage utilities to burn more natural gas right away. And, looking ahead, it makes sense for Congress to provide gas fired power generators with at least the same incentives that carbon-heavy fuels have to capture and sequester CO2.

    Under H.R. 2454, as reported from the Energy and Commerce Commt., major subsidies for carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) include the following: Per Sections 115 and 782(f), EPA is to provide the benefit of 2% of the total pool of emission allowances from 2014-2017 — and a full 5% of the pool from 2018-2050 — for commercial CCS technologies. The first 6 GW of coal-fired power projects are eligible for $50 /per ton of CO2 captured and sequestered, provided that at least 50% of CO2 emissions are captured. If at least 85% of total CO2 is captured, then the bonus rate rises to $90 per ton. For reasons that are hard to fathom, however, gas-fired power projects would not meet the eligibility criteria for any support under these provisions in the bill.

  46. T. Boone Pickens says:

    My check’s in the mail, too Joe!

  47. Alex J says:

    Regarding wood as a supplemental source: Salvage logging has been a contentious issue here in the Northwest, perceived by some as a potential loophole in forest regulation that allows the building of more access roads etc. The question is, how much can you take before altering a system in which downed trees have ecological functions, particularly in those tropical forests with sensitive soils? If anything, I could support strictly monitored salvage in the U.S., where forest mismanagement (and in some areas, probably climate change) has resulted in a buildup of dead material beyond healthy levels. Given what’s happened in some tropical countries with governments being complicit in forest decimation, I wouldn’t want any utility accepting tropical wood not certified as ecologically sound.

  48. Joe,

    I read the Chesapeake Energy Co Annual Report. Did you?

    They were the only natural gas producer on your list in attendance.

    I also looked at annual reports from :
    Encana-largest North American NG producer
    BP
    Chevron
    Energen
    Statoil
    Marathon
    Williams Brothers

    Flaky outfits all.

    None seem to think reserves are anything like what Chesapeake says, though Statoil is joint venturing in one of their operations.

    [JR: The big boys missed this one.]

    Another of these was joint venturing with Chesapeake in an operation, but Chesapeake pulled out of that deal. Hm?

    Chesapeake evalutates their reserves differently than the others on the list. They use a committee of outside consultants (wonder how they are hired and paid). Last year no Chesapeake employees were on the committee. Hm?

    There should be a note that natural gas reserves are a very elusive thing to evaluate. The results depend a lot on how much comes out of a well; it is more difficult to know how much is still there.

    All said, I hope Chesapeake is right, but caution is in order. Bear in mind that the Chesapeake stock price is very much related to its reserves.

    For those who bemoan the fact that this is still fossil fuel, if it can be used to reduce CO2 for a given amount of electricity produced by 83% that might be a good thing. ( I am referring to cogeneration where electricity is a by-product of heat production–backwards of the usually assumed system.)

    Joe, of course you don’t believe that number, but even if it is less, it would still be important progress.

    [JR: I believe in real cogen, not your bizarre car engine cogen.]

  49. Joe,

    Your say: LNG terminals have been in the works for years. Shale gas will kill virtually all of them — and that is a very good thing!

    Some who have significant knowledge of the natural gas reserves continue to believe that their financial interest will be well served by providing a means of conveying that resource to us for many years in the future.

    On what basis do you think that should be killed?

    [JR: LNG is a very problematic approach, not even including its terrorism-related concerns. The energy wasted liquefying natural gas could be put to better purposes. And frankly, that natural gas would be better used by countries that are going to need it, if we don’t.]

  50. Erik S.G. says:

    Don’t drink the natural gas kool aid too quickly.

    It is quite true that the combustion of natural gas releases about 50% (or, as Joe suggests, 60%) less global warming pollution. But that’s only part of the picture. We don’t fully understand the full life-cycle of global warming emissions from the production, processing, and transmission/distribution of natural gas. And this is a problem given that methane emissions are 25x as potent as CO2 emissions.

    In the major natural gas producing states in the Rocky Mountain West, such as New Mexico, inventories of global warming pollution upstream oil & gas operations demonstrate that these operations are the second largest source of global warming pollution, second only to electricity generation. But these were top-down inventories that were not premised on accurate equipment inventories and other data and thus did not fully account for the pollution, and it’s almost a certainty that these inventories not only underestimate the actual magnitude of pollution, but do so significantly. Efforts are under way to establish reporting protocols/rules at the federal, regional, and state level, and reporting rules have been recently put in place in New Mexico and California, but we have a ways to go before we understand what’s really going on with this sector.

    The upstream production process is quite dirty, with global warming pollution emitted from the drilling process itself, flaring & venting, and the host of compressor stations, pipelines, pneumatic valves, condensate tanks, and other equipment used in the production of the gas, as it moves downstream to market. Global warming pollution from these operations is too often discounted because it originates not with a single, big, identifiable source (e.g., a coal-fired power plant) but, instead, with hundreds of thousands of individual wells and pieces of equipment strewn across our rural and wildlands landscapes (far from the eyes of our mainstream media, politicians, and DC-based policy/lobbying groups). In effect, a giant, disaggregated, landscape-scale factory. Put simply, there is considerable waste in the production process leading to climate concerns.

    Industry argues that they have no incentive to waste, but this is just a baseless argument that the free market somehow works perfectly and that their companies are perfectly efficient. The reality is that some companies have done decent work to reduce emissions but that many of the smaller, independent oil & gas companies don’t have the expertise or capacity to reduce these emissions and are simply resistant to the idea of reducing those emissions. Moreover, without any sort of price signal or regulatory framework in place, there are huge structural barriers in terms of how production operations are conducted that incentivize investment in new leases or other activities rather than efficient production.

    Furthermore, as mentioned in Joe’s post, there are serious environmental concerns. In the Western U.S. we’ve witnessed the drilling of approx. 120,000 oil and, primarily, natural wells since 2000 and anticipate, on federal public lands alone, an additional 126,000 wells. Irresponsible development is leading to degradation of our watersheds, threatening to pinch off ancient migratory wildlife corridors, and creating localized health impacts from ozone pollution in states you typically think of as having infinite, untrammeled skies. Moreover, federal land managers continue a rush to lease mentality initiated under the prior administration. At present, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, based on FY 2008 data, has leased over 47 million acres of land for oil & gas but only 14.5 million acres have actually been developed for production. Arguments to expand our reliance on natural gas thus often hide a political agenda to acquire leases to assist in industry’s bottom line, not necessarily to produce gas for market, and to undermine conservation efforts to provide our most treasured landscapes with permanent protection.

    I have little doubt that natural gas will play an important role in our transition to efficient use of clean energy, like wind and solar, and I’m a resolute pragmatist. But we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves and we should think carefully about how our positions will actually play themselves out in the political sphere, where calls for natural gas could lead to irresponsible development that does little to nothing to solve our climate and energy problems.

    So, if indeed we do move to use natural gas as a transition fuel, then we need to first put in place measures to ensure responsible development — measures to quantify & monitor the full life-cycle of global warming pollution, measures to require use of cost-effective, off-the-shelf technologies (like EPA’s underutilized Natural Gas STAR program), and measures to ensure that production does not compromise the resiliency of communities and landscapes to resist the impacts of a warming world. Right now, those measures are not in place.

    And we should be cognizant of the bathtub principle — that once the tub (our atmosphere) is full, even incremental additions of water (global warming pollution) are highly problematic. So please don’t jump on the natural gas bandwagon before we understand its full implications. We too easily fall into the trap of fearing coal so much that we’ll take anything else instead. And the propaganda from natural gas companies and individuals like Mr. Pickens (who just posted above) should be taken more than a few grains of salt.

    Erik Schlenker-Goodrich
    Director, Global Warming & Energy Program
    Western Environmental Law Center
    Taos, New Mexico

  51. Yuebing says:

    US Coal fired electricity production equals about two trillion kwhs annually. What could we do in parallel with a natural gas powered coal phase out? CHP and Efficiency for starters.

    There are over 60 million households already using natural gas to heat. Renovate the buildings to use about half the natural gas they use now, and put micro CHP every where you can. In 2008 residential use was about 5 trillion cubic feet.

    http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/ dnav/ ng/ ng_cons_sum_dcu_nus_a.htm

    83 million btu heating&etc per household pre renovation, 42 million btu afterwards, and each household also burns and additional 6.8 million btu which makes electricity. 14% efficiency for the electrical production of the CHP, and +95% overall for the combined heat and power. (note to Detroit–America needs your manufacturing capacity)

    Makes 0.12 trillion kwhs from CHP, and frees up 2 trillion cu ft annually, which would make another 0.4 trilion kwhs annually in the underutilized natural gas fleet.

    0.52 trillion kwhs equals one in four coal plants shut down. So far so good.

    Each of the 112 million US households are using about 10,000 kwhs annually. Everyone reading Joe’s blog knows we could cut that in half in about ten years with zero impact on lifestyle, and make money at the same time. New fridges, LCD screens, solar hot water, CFL/LED, etc. That liberates another 0.56 trillion kwhs annually. Two out of four coal plants shut down.

    Use new natural gas to shut down the rest of the coal plants? Yes, if the environmental controls are adequate, and the new pipelines are put in carefully and with full respect for the environment and land owners (little or no chance there between FERC and the alligator shoe crowd)

    Power down every coal plant in the US by 2020? Towards peaking at 425 ppm CO2, Hansen et al write:

    http://pubs.giss.nasa.gov/ docs/ 2008/ 2008_Hansen_etal.pdf (page 30 of 36)

    A basic assumption underlying Fig. (6) is that, within the next several years, there will be a moratorium on construction of coal-fired power plants that do not capture and store CO2, and that CO2 emissions from existing power plants will be phased out by 2030. This coal emissions phase out is the sine qua non for stabilizing and reducing atmospheric CO2. If the sine qua non ofcoal emissions phase-out is achieved, atmospheric CO2 can be kept to a peak amount ~400-425 ppm, depending upon the
    magnitude of oil and gas reserves.

  52. Yuebing says:

    ?

  53. Susan says:

    I’m still listening. I thought I knew this was a bad idea, but apparently there are arguments, and certainly it would be better than coal.

    Oil shale is not gas shale, huh? Anyone care to explain? What are the extraction costs and tradeoffs?

    Somewhere there was an item about using nuclear to extract from shale. What was that?

    These are questions, not answers, but I’m not ready to jump on the bandwagon until I’m clear that we aren’t hiding from reality.

  54. Is using NG to fuel back-up engines in hybrid electric vehicles, like the Prius, better than a gas-fueled Prius as a bridge technology to fully electric cars?

  55. Re B. Waterhouse,

    Sure, and the extra amount of car needed to carry the compressed gas tank would not hurt that much. If it was LNG the system to keep the stuff cold would probably be overwhelming.

    But the talk of reserves is relevant. For quite a few years, the reserves of natural gas have held on such that production was about matched by new findings. If you believe that reserves are unlimited, then whoopee! But if you think the asserted reserves are not real, then the added load of using natural gas to fuel even the efficient Prius and its imitators would cut off the end point at some time not so far off.

  56. Leland Palmer says:

    Hi Len Ornstein

    Converting coal plants to wood is cheaper than converting them to gas. And if the wood is ‘chosen’ so that it has near zero CO2 footprint (e.g., harvesting fallen trees before they decay) the coal remains in the ground, and burning the wood produces only the same CO2 as decay would have produced. So there is a net effective sequestration of the an amount of CO2 about equal to what burning the coal would have produced – plus the energy of combustion.

    That’s 4 times better than converting to NG!

    Very good news. There seems to be a myth that we don’t have very much biomass. In reality, we have huge amounts of biomass, it’s just variable in quality, high in moisture content, and hard to harvest and transport.

    I think the problem is going to be to get the dead insect and drought killed trees out of the forests before they burn in huge wildfires, brought about by global warming. Have you considered combining fire suppression with your tree harvesting program? Firebreaks and fire roads can be pretty much the same thing, and would offer access to wider areas of forest.

    Have you considered transforming at least part of your wood into biocarbon?:

    http://www.bioenergymagazine.ca/article.jsp?article_id=341&article_title=Biomass+-%3E+Biocarbon+-%3E+Bioenergy&q=&page=all

    Wood-based bioenergy for example, was revolutionized through the development of wood pellets which nearly double the energy density of green wood chips, producing approximately 9.5 gigajoules per tonne (GJ/t). Wood pellets have emerged as a significant fuel supply for various areas of the world, most notably in Europe. Building the new bioenergy industry though, is not without its challenges. Wood fibre is bulky, therefore expensive to transport, and the material must be densified to open up the global potential for bioenergy in Canada. Biocarbon, while produced from the same type of biomass as wood pellets, has an energy density equivalent to that of coal, which yields an energy density of approximately 30 GJ/t, or 60 per cent more energy than wood pellets.

    Biocarbon, also called biochar or charcoal, is a renewable replacement for coal manufactured for industrial markets. The material can be produced from biomass resources such as wood, municipal and agricultural waste, and tires through a controlled heating process called “carbonization,” which heats organic (carbon-containing) materials to elevated temperatures in an environment of controlled and reduced oxygen levels. During the carbonization process all of the energy necessary to fuel the process can be supplied by the biomass.

  57. Bill Woods says:

    Susan (at 5:15 pm): Oil shale is not gas shale, huh? Anyone care to explain? What are the extraction costs and tradeoffs?

    Somewhere there was an item about using nuclear to extract from shale. What was that?

    Gas shale is gas locked within shale, as opposed to the conventional gas trappedbeneath a layer of shale.

    Oil shale is kerogen, a sort of pre-oil, which needs to be heated to convert it into oil. That’s done naturally by burying it sufficiently deep for sufficiently long, but it can be done artificially. That’s where nuclear power, or some other source of heat, could come in.

  58. Matt Dernoga says:

    I just did my second post of three on the merits of natural gas. I think you might be interested in what I’ve found from the research I did.

    http://madrad2002.wordpress.com/2009/06/06/natural-gas-2/