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.