John Podesta, head of the Anti-Heritage Foundation, also known as the Center for American Progress, had many nice things to say about natural gas at Harry Reid's energy bash in Las Vegas the other day.
So did Harry Reid himself, who announced that he's now a congregant at T. Boone Pickens' church of natural gas.
Even Al Gore, the scourge of all things carbon, allowed that natural gas is welcome in his world.
Meanwhile, there's an affray brewing among the the fossil fuel band of brothers. The gas guys are differentiating themselves in the market. They're taking out ads that, in so many words, say that coal is an environmental problem. Oil is a geopolitical problem. Gas helps solve both. It's clean and 100 percent American. So there.
What gives? A basic rule of politics is that there are no permanentfriends, only permanent interests. The gas game has shifted in the past few years. That has changed the politics of energy. Gas is no longer the polite little brother of oil and coal. Now, the gas industry has something to gain by giving oil and coal the raspberry. Enviros and their political allies have perked up with interest. That might help shift the energy debate in a positive direction.
Here's the back story: Podesta and the others at the Vegas energy jamboree talked up shale gas. That's gas found in deep formations that, until recently, wasn't practical to produce. Now it is. Gas producers are effervescing over its abundance in the Lower 48. The Barnett Shale in Texas. The Fayetteville Shale in Arkansas. The Haynesville Shale in Louisiana. The Bakken Shale in North Dakota. And the potentially vast Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and neighboring states. From almost nothing 10 years ago, the Barnett has ramped up to where it's now contributing 6 percent of the nation's gas supply. Ask a friend in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex about all the new gas wells that have popped up around town.
At a House subcommittee hearing in June, gas producer Chesapeake Energy estimated that shale gas could account for half of domestic gas production by 2020. Add the burgeoning shale resource to other gas reserves, and the industry thinks that the total domestic supply is equivalent to nearly 120 years' worth of current production levels. Another gas industry report figures that shale gas used to fuel motor vehicles could displace 2.4 million barrels of oil per year by 2025, about 12 percent of current petroleum consumption.
And, the gas ads say, did we mention that burning gas emits half the CO2 of burning coal? Yes, several times.
Podesta said that shale gas is a potential game-changer. In a paper released in time for the energy summit, he and former Colorado Senator Tim Wirth pointed out that gas could serve as a backup power source that would give utilities a deeper comfort level with integrating lots more intermittent wind and solar energy into their systems.
A little-known fact that the paper included is that a significant amount of the gas-fired electricity generating capacity in the U.S. sits idle much of the time for cost reasons. To cut greenhouse gas emissions without investing a lot in new power plants, Podesta/Wirth wrote, back down coal and fire up the underutilized gas plants. To make it work, the paper suggests, use carbon prices to push gas ahead of coal in the order of "dispatch," utility-speak for determining which plants will be used at any given time to meet load.
Like any other energy resource, however, gas is not free of issues. Producing deep shale gas requires "hydro-fracking" -- sending lots of chemicals down the borehole to loosen up the formation and persuade the gas molecules to head for the surface. At the House subcommittee hearing, a former head of the New York City water and sewer system offered pointed comments about the risks of fracking chemicals getting into aquifers used for drinking water in the crowded Northeast, and the heavy water demand that the fracking process would impose on small tributary streams. Drilling operations create air pollution, noise and odors. Gas operations can leak methane, a greenhouse gas more powerful than CO2.
Producers touting shale gas big potential can count on those issues being raised repeatedly if and when production from the mammoth Marcellus formation scales up.
Advice from this corner is to make haste slowly. The promise of gas is real, but Harry Reid's epiphany notwithstanding, there are no miracle prescriptions for shifting Americas energy economy to one with more security and less carbon. Diversification is critical. We need many baskets to hold our energy eggs, not just a few.
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