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Chu Remains Advocate for Natural Gas, New Technology

Former Energy Secretary Steven Chu told a standing-room-only crowd on Monday that he continues to believe natural gas is the "genuine transition fuel," that will lead all other types of fuels in all types of applications through this century.

Chu, who was the keynote speaker Monday in Dallas at the annual Gas Processors Association Convention, served as President Obama's first Secretary of the Department of Energy (DOE). The dedicated researcher, a Nobel Prize recipient in 2007, was a natural gas industry supporter when he was in office, and he continues to believe gas is the No. 1 way to transition to less carbon intensive-fuels.

"I'm often asked if it will be possible to use oil and gas in a high carbon constrained world by mid century. I think it is." It's not perfect, and gas produces harmful emissions, but they can be dealt with through carbon capture, utilization and sequestration (CCUS), while oil production can use enhanced oil recovery (EOR) -- "new capture technologies" that should continue safer fossil fuels use for decades. There's nothing better than gas, he said.

"If we have a week or two of really bad weather, we need backup power," Chu said. "Natural gas is terrific for this for a number of things. First, it's inexpensive. Second, power plants can ramp up at speeds of 100 MW/minute...Gas has emissions guarantees and it's able to turn down up to 14% of plant base..."

Liquefied natural gas and compressed natural gas (CNG) use in transportation, especially the heavy trucking industry, also is a natural. "If you are a big, 18-wheeler that drives 100,000 miles, even a $1.00 or $2.00 difference between diesel fuel and natural gas is a big deal...I think it will be a big deal."

It may cost 50-100% more to build compliant natural gas fueling systems for mass transport, but it's higher because of the cost of engineering, which is up to 30% higher than for diesel-fueled trucks. "It's new technology that hasn't been mass-marketed yet. We need two or three competitors to bring the cost down," he said. "It's already becoming a very big deal," as more fueling terminals are built.

As the head of the DOE, Chu pushed for diversifying fueling resources, and he advocated for renewables growth. However, his mindset always has been on the front-end: finding technologies that worked. DOE aimed at "putting money into research" rather than deploying it. For instance, "we were funding research in making pressurized CNG tanks less expensive...There's a world of difference in pounds per square inch...

"I'm less in favor of putting tax dollars into natural gas fueling around the country. I want technology to stand on its own feet. I want research to be emphasized on deployment."

That emphasis on technology is a big reason Chu has been pushing for CCUS and EOR. Improving methods to capture carbon dioxide (CO2) underground would allow measurements of methane and CO2 to be better tracked. If there were leaks, they could be plugged.

Advances in identifying leaks in carbon capture systems are coming through ever-more accurate spectroscopy systems that may provide "sensitive and quasi-remote sensing of CO2 and methane." In addition, nonbiodegradable materials, such as using plastics in transportation and building materials, are forms of carbon sequestration that could help reduce CO2.

Chu took several minutes to explain why reducing greenhouse gases is imperative.

"There is a U.S. economic boom, but there are real risks" to changes in the climate. While many advocate that all fossil fuels should be abolished for renewables, Chu is more pragmatic about the rise in temperatures that are man-made. It may take hundreds of years to know how the impact from rising temperatures may impact the planet. Climate change isn't an exact science, he admitted.

In illustrating the Earth's temperature record from 1800 through 2011, Chu showed how jagged temperatures have been. Temperatures plateaued from 1920 to the late '60s and then began climbing. "Climate scientists don't understand that plateau. There are many, many things we do not understand having to do with climate change, just as we didn't understand a lot of things to do with smoking. We still don't know why some people can smoke and not get cancer..."

Climate change, is a "very complex thing" that involves the atmosphere, oceans, land, tilt of the earth, etc. "Let me just say, most of the rise has been from 1980 on...You can see the plateaus in the 10-year average, but something happens if you start averaging more than half a century..."

Look at the increased impact -- human and financial -- of natural disasters. "Earthquakes, storms, floods and droughts are rising," Chu noted. Six out of seven of the most costly natural catastrophes have occurred in the last eight years.

"Something weird is going on," Chu said. "It's something in climate models that we can't predict. Just as epidemiology of smoking and cancer, something weird is happening."

Paraphrasing the language-challenged former New York Yankees star catcher Yogi Berra, Chu said, "If we don't change direction, we'll end up where we are heading..." There's been "weird weather for the last 35 years." The degree change has been less than one degree, but it's still an unknown.

"We don't know what the time delay really is" on how fast and how much temperatures may rise over a particular period. "We've never had experience in this type of thing before...It may be 200 to 300 years before we know the damage done...If you smoke, it's a personal choice. If you smoke and it doesn't affect you, but it affects your grandchildren, you probably will try very hard to quit. It's an issue, as a society, of what are we going to do? This a risk. We don't know if it's going to come true...But at 6 to 10 degrees colder, all of Canada and half of the United States would be covered in ice.

"Two degrees we probably can manage. Not four or five...These are exciting times. I see pushing for technology to actually help the gas industry because I think it's a transition fuel. It's also an issue. We need to get it on the table and start talking about it."

Chu has been very public with his support of hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Last fall he said that while fracking best practices need to be improved, the drilling practice can still be done safely (see Shale Daily, Sept. 19, 2013).

"Hydraulic fracturing recovery of gas and natural gas liquids and oil can and should be done in an environmentally sensitive manner," Chu said at the time. "You can have your cake and eat it too. I think it's a false choice to say either you develop natural gas and oil in the United States with hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling and live with the environmental consequences, or you stop it because of the environmental consequences. You can develop it in an environmental safe way. Is regulation needed? Yes -- but I do hope that the industry actually takes a leadership role," similar to the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations.

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