Responding to multiple questions from a New York audience Monday on issues surrounding natural gas production, Energy Department Secretary Ernest Moniz said the fuel is both "part of the problem" and "part of the solution," and it has a strong role to play in underpinning the U.S. economy.
"It is a fact that in the last few years the natural gas revolution has been a major contributor to the reduction of carbon emissions." Moniz pointed to the leading role of the U.S. among developed countries in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, ascribing half the nation's emission reduction advances so far to the progress in replacing coal with natural gas in fueling power plants. But natural gas is just a bridge to an emissions-free society and there will come a time when it will suffer the same fate as coal.
While the secretary's speech at Columbia University's Center for Global Energy Policy focused on his department's leading renewables and loan guarantee programs, with nary a mention of fossil fuels, half the questions from the audience were about hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of natural gas wells and methane emissions.
Moniz pointed to the need to be "pragmatic, or practical in dealing with the situation we have," recognizing that currently 80% of energy production comes from fossil fuels. While the government is strongly supporting emissions-free alternatives, "it is extremely hard to see very rapid choices for deployment" of new technologies.
In the meantime, the government is looking at ways to make fossil fuel use cleaner. The Energy Department, along with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior and Agriculture departments, is working on an expanded study of methane emissions and other problems associated with natural gas production. "We will expand the study from the narrow focus of emissions at the well to end-to-end emissions, including the transportation infrastructure."
With natural gas "each of the issues to be addressed has clear solutions." He hastened to add that "just because they are manageable doesn't mean they are being managed," and called for consistent application of best practices.
Progress is being made and new technology is being used to address the problems. For instance, "it's a lot better to use natural gas engines to drive the fracking fluid." Natural gas is still an interim solution on the way to emissions-free energy, Moniz advised, saying the time will come when -- just as there currently is for coal -- there will be a need for carbon capture with natural gas production.
Oil poses a bigger problem, since substitutions for its use in transportation are not readily available. He acknowledged that electric-powered vehicles and the use of bio-fuels are both very promising, but a long way from mass use. There are advances being made in reducing emissions from oil use, but so far shale oil is not "about changing the carbon balance, but about changing the balance of payments," the energy secretary said, noting the reduction in U.S. oil imports. "Our imports are at the lowest level in many, many years."
Again responding to a question, Moniz said the lessening of U.S. dependence on oil imports "does not change our security posture in that part [Middle East] of the world." The U.S. has "more security equities than just oil," in that area, as well as key allies who are dependent on Middle East oil.
Shale gas has already had an impact on the world natural gas market, Moniz said, "because of all the LNG [liquefied natural gas] the U.S. is not importing."
Regarding proposed U.S. exports of LNG, Moniz said the pending applications to export would be dealt with "more or less" in the order they have been filed. He reminded, however, that the last two of the export licenses to non-Free Trade Agreement countries were provisional, which means they still face environmental review and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission construction permits. That could take about a year, and after that comes financing and construction. He said the first project approved is still under construction. "Granting a license isn't the same as having gas exported."