For many years the conventional wisdom has been that natural gas would play an important role as a bridge fuel in the 21st century and then perhaps fade away as the world turned to renewables. Let me offer a very different vision.
While natural gas supplies 23% of U.S. energy (about the same as coal) and 23% of world energy, there are two concerns that have created skepticism regarding the prospects for natural gas in the 21st century and beyond. Both are misplaced.
Can Natural Gas Power the World for Centuries to Come? The first concern goes to natural gas supply. The concern regarding supply originated in the 1970’s, a time when federal law required that natural gas production be price regulated. The result of that misguided effort were shortages that had nothing to do with the supply of natural gas in the ground and everything to do with the price that producers were allowed to charge to get that natural gas out of the ground. The price deregulation of natural gas production has led to an interesting development – the more natural gas we produce, the more natural gas we find that can be produced. Unconventional sources of natural gas that were once deemed impossible to produce now make up almost half of the natural gas we produce today. As we look to the 21st century and beyond, we now face the surprising reality that the future supply of natural gas in North America is almost un-measureable – and that it may well exceed the energy content of coal and oil combined. Much of that huge supply is in the form of frozen natural gas – methane hydrates. While many persons have assumed that methane hydrates could never be produced economically – as was once said of much of the other sources of natural gas currently powering our economy – the U.S. Geological Survey recently announced that it had produced methane hydrates in Alaska using conventional natural gas drilling technologies. While this development does not mean that we will see methane hydrates supplying any significant portion of U.S. natural gas supply in the next 10 to 15 years, it does mean that we need to think about a future North American natural gas supply that might last for many centuries.
What About Greenhouse Gas Emissions? This leads to the second concern regarding natural gas. Is there a role for a fossil fuel in a low-carbon future where the world seeks to reduce carbon emissions 80% below current levels? I believe that natural gas can and should be a major energy source in that low carbon future. Here’s why.
- Today – Leading in Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction. While greenhouse gas emissions increase worldwide, natural gas utility customers have reduced their greenhouse gas emissions down to 1990 levels at the same time the number of customers has increased substantially. Natural gas distribution sector customers have largely achieved the goal today that president-elect Obama set for the U.S. economy for 2020. Pretty surprising for a fossil fuel.
- Tomorrow – Poised to Continue Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Replacing higher greenhouse gas-emitting electric water heaters with high efficiency natural gas water heaters and replacing lower efficiency home and business heating appliances with high efficiency natural gas appliances will continue to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. To make that happen faster, we need increased federal tax credits and other programs to encourage moving to lower carbon footprint heating technologies.
- Further into the 21st Century – A Natural Gas Low Carbon/Zero Carbon Future? All fossil fuels confront the need to reduce carbon emissions. But natural gas starts with a number of significant advantages:
- It emits 45% less CO2 than coal and 30% less CO2 than oil.
- It is composed primarily of clean hydrogen – natural gas (methane) consists of four hydrogen atoms and only one carbon atom.
- Natural gas can be turned into hydrogen today.
- With additional research and funding, it seems quite conceivable that the carbon in natural gas could be captured economically and much of the future economy could be fueled by hydrogen from natural gas.
What do you think?