Energy experts predict that natural gas will surpass coal and become the second most widely used fossil fuel on Earth by 2030, but said challenges remain for the industry to make that a reality.

Steve Kirchhoff, a vice president for ExxonMobil Gas & Power Marketing, told the North America Gas Summit in Washington, DC that the company expects natural gas to be the fastest growing major fuel through 2030, with global demand increasing more than 60% from 2005. He said the increased global use of natural gas for power generation would be the main contributor for it becoming the second-highest fossil fuel by 2030, trailing only oil.

“Under any scenario, ExxonMobil believes natural gas is a particularly attractive fuel choice for power generation,” Kirchhoff said. “It’s abundant and it produces up to 16% less CO2 [carbon dioxide] emissions than coal. Natural gas power generation plants are based on proven technology, can be built quickly and are already cost effective. With today’s improved turbine technology, they can provide a significant source of flexibility and reliability to a power grid that has to respond to rapid changes, either on the supply or the demand side.”

Kirchhoff conceded that while the natural gas industry has been bullish on shale for the past two or three years, the power industry hadn’t kept pace.

“The power utility industry, maybe rightfully so, has been a little more skeptical about the belief in just exactly how abundant North American supplies are,” Kirchhoff said. “We’re making good progress. As you listen to the speeches of major utility industry heads today, more and more of them are saying they believe in the abundance of natural gas and understand that it’s a very viable choice going forward.”

Kirchhoff’s comments echoed the findings of ExxonMobil’s “Outlook for Energy: A View to 2030,” which was released in January (see NGI, Jan. 31). Oil, natural gas and coal will continue to meet most of the world’s needs over the next 20 years “because no other energy sources can match their availability, versatility, affordability and scale,” according to ExxonMobil’s analysis.

Robert Hefner, owner and founder of GHK Co., said transparency and public education were essential if the industry hoped to use hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

“There’s no question [fracking] can be done well and it can be done safely,” Hefner said. “Unfortunately some patent issues got in the way at one point and some of the [fracking] fluids were withheld from the public. All of the facts need to be on the table. It all needs to be transparent.”

Linda Capuano, vice president of technology for Marathon Oil Corp., cautioned that rapid technology deployment in the natural gas industry is leading to claims of efficiency gains based on short production histories. She said those claims were coinciding with increased competition among operators for supplies and services.

“We all know that the large natural gas resource is a positive opportunity in North America, but it is also driving rapid technology development in the oil and gas industry,” Capuano said. “It’s early and only history will provide clarity on the future recovery factor.”

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