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The Economist Sees Natural Gas as 'Cleaner, Not Cooler'

The boom in shale gas and the increased use of natural gas will solve some, but not all, of the world's problems with energy use, according to an essay, one of two articles on the world impact of shale gas in a recent issue of the British weekly news magazine, The Economist.

The natural gas revolution, overpowering coal, will reduce carbon, undermine energy tyrants because of its widespread availability, and help the world breathe easier. On the other hand it is not likely to help reduce global warming, the magazine writes in its report, "Cleaner, Not Cooler."

"Gas is a boon to public health," The Economist advises. "It does not distribute neurotoxic mercury around the planet; it does not clog city air and the lungs of those who breathe it with soot and sulphur...Even if it were not cheap and plentiful, gas would be attractive simply on the grounds of cleanliness."

The magazine also says the fact that it is being developed in many areas around the globe lessens the chance that access to energy can be used to exert political pressure. "Each new LNG terminal decreases Vladimir Putin's ability to blackmail his neighbors and much of Western Europe."

There are some downsides. Unfortunately, it is the sulfur particles released in coal burning and floating in the air that temporarily block some of the sun's rays and moderate its heat. "Increased emissions of sulphur from Chinese coal burning may be part of the reason why global temperatures were fairly stable over the past decade," according to The Economist.

As China and others switch to natural gas and breathe clean air, there may be more warming. Also, cheap and clean natural gas will tend to edge out climate-friendly renewables and nuclear energy.

"A recently published scenario from the International Energy Agency projects that by 2035 the overall increase in energy use and the reduced use of nuclear and renewables in a gas-happy world would almost perfectly balance out the gains made by burning gas instead of coal," The Economist writes.

There are some possible answers, such as manipulating pricing so the low-carbon options can compete with natural gas to replace coal, or developing cheaper low-carbon electricity and storage for both energy and carbon dioxide. Longer term, scientists may come up with some other options for reducing the amount of the sun's rays that reach the Earth.

But, there's another reason to welcome the natural gas boom. It "demonstrates how R&D, such as that which brought forth shale gas, can change the world's energy outlook. No single technological advance solves everything. But it is good to be reminded that progress is possible."

The recent shale gas bonanza has lead to a resurgence in U.S. domestic natural gas production and less reliance on imported LNG. Since reaching a low for the period of 18.44 Tcf in 2005, U.S. Lower 48 marketed natural gas production grew to 22.19 Tcf in 2010, according to NGI's Shale Daily calculations from Energy Information Administration data. LNG imports to the United States reached a high of 0.77 Tcf in 2007, but retreated to 0.43 Tcf in 2010.

Following up on its initial essay, the Economist explores the advance of the shale gas boom more thoroughly in another article in the same Aug. 4 issue, "The Future of Natural Gas: Coming Soon to a Terminal Near You," which credits the Natural Gas Policy Act of 1978 as opening up the American market to new developments. Even without further development of shale gas resources in other parts of the world, the U.S. boom has freed up massive amounts of LNG that had been earmarked for the U.S. to go instead to Asia and Europe.

The article also discusses the three distinct pricing regimes in the world and the impact China might have on those regimes. Similarly, the widespread gas resources will result in "the great declouting" of Venezuela, Iran and Nigeria despite their huge reserves.

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