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Energy Solutions

Will Natural Gas Be Our Domestic Energy Savior?

Why we should think twice before putting all our eggs in the natural gas basket

A natural gas well in the shale country of Pennsylvania.
Image Credit: Philly Workers Voice
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In many parts of the country and for many applications, natural gas is considered a panacea to our energy challenges.

Comprised mostly of methane, natural gas is clean-burning, with just a tiny fraction of the particulates, nitrous oxides, and other pollutants that are emitted from burning coal or oil. Because the ratio of hydrogen to carbon is higher with natural gas than with longer-carbon-chain fossil fuels like coal and oil, less carbon dioxide is generated when it is burned. At the point of combustion, natural gas releases about 500 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour (kWh), compared to about 900 grams for coal. That’s good news in terms of climate change.

And the dramatic upsurge in natural gas production made possible through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has cut prices dramatically over the past five years. These low prices have contributed to utility companies replacing some of the nation’s dirtiest coal-fired power plants with advanced, natural gas plants—and this has lead to rather significant reductions in our nation’s carbon dioxide emissions over the past few years.

Natural gas seems like a winner. What’s not to like about it?

Natural gas supply and demand

A glut of natural gas floods the domestic market currently, and that’s a boon for consumers and many segments of the U.S. economy. It has led to a fairly rapid shift away from oil and coal toward natural gas. Nearly all of the new power plants built in the last few years have been natural-gas-fueled. With transportation, some large fleets, such as UPS and FedEx, are converting from diesel or gasoline to compressed natural gas. So are some urban bus fleets—at great benefit to urban air quality.

But as these conversions continue, the buyer’s market for natural gas will gradually end as demand inevitably catches up with supply. Natural gas prices will rise.

That shift can’t come soon enough for natural gas producers. In a , Exxon Mobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson noted that the wellhead prices being paid for natural gas—then about $2.50 per thousand cubic feet (Mcf)—were far below the cost of production.

“What I can tell you is the cost to supply is not $2.50,” Tillerson told moderator Alan Murray of the Wall Street Journal. “We are all losing our shirts today. You know, we’re making no money. It’s all in the red.” (Since then wellhead prices have risen to about $3.30/Mcf in the U.S.—probably high enough for about a third of shale-gas wells to break even.)

The international market will also affect natural gas pricing. In Europe and Asia the wellhead price of natural gas is three to more than five times higher than in the U.S. Natural gas isn’t stored and transported as easily as petroleum, so the pricing tends to be more regional.

As technologies and facilities improve for compressing or liquefying and transporting natural gas, prices internationally are likely to equilibrate to a significant extent—in our increasingly global economy. As many as 15 liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals are in the works. If approved and built, these could export as much as 21 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) per year—80% of the current U.S. domestic consumption (26 Tcf). 

If just a fraction of these LNG terminals are built—as the conversion from coal to gas continues in the utility sector and from diesel to CNG continues in the transportation sector—natural gas prices can be expected to rise significantly. I will be surprised if we don’t see natural gas above our historical highs (over $10/Mcf in mid-2008) well within ten years.

Shale gas and fracking

The surge in natural gas production in the U.S. and the low prices over the past six years have been driven by shale gas extracted through fracking. In mid-2007, shale gas production in the U.S. totaled less than 5 billion cubic feet per day; by the end of 2011 that production had risen to nearly 30 billion cubic feet per day.

With fracking, water, sand, and chemicals are injected under very high pressure into wells up to several miles deep and extending horizontally up to several more miles. Controlled explosions fracture the 350-million-year-old shale, followed by the injection of fluid under high pressure that extends fractures into the rock. Next, sand or a like material (“proppant”) is injected to “prop” open those fissures so that natural gas can flow out into the pipe and be extracted.

Along with the water and proppants, various chemicals are injected that serve as lubricants, viscosity agents, and anti-bacterial agents to aid in the process. Much of this frack fluid is pumped to the surface, along with highly saline water and various toxic elements from the rock (including barium and arsenic) and must be disposed of. That which doesn’t get pumped back out remains underground. There is very little transparency by the industry on exactly what chemicals are being used and what quantities.

Along with the considerable environmental concerns about fracking, there is concern among some experts that just as gas extraction rates increase rapidly with fracking, those production rates will also drop off very quickly. A June, 2011 article in the New York Times raised concern that depletion of fracked gas wells occurs more quickly than with conventional gas wells.

According to petroleum geologist Arthur Berman, Associate Editor of the and director of the , the annual depletion rate in the Eagleford Shale (which he calls “the mother of all shale plays”) is over 42%.

Fugitive methane emissions

Then there’s the issue of fugitive methane emissions from gas drilling—and particularly fracking. Natural gas is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and some experts suggest that as a result natural gas’s contributions to climate change are significantly greater than the CO2 releases during combustion would suggest—though the widely publicized claim by a Cornell University scientist that the greenhouse gas impact of natural gas is greater than that of coal has largely been dismissed.

Converting to natural gas

I would like to be 100% behind natural gas as the fuel of the future. Indeed, I am hopeful that the current low price of natural gas will result in the shutdown of more coal-fired power plants.

But I can’t help worrying that when we pump undisclosed chemicals into the ground (“trust us, they’re safe”) and break up geologic strata in ways that alter the flow of groundwater and gases, we’re unleashing a Pandora’s box of problems that our children and grandchildren will have to deal with at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars—for an energy return that proves fleetingly brief.

My hope is that the low-cost natural gas we enjoy today will continue to spur the transition away from coal while buying us enough time for the truly clean, nearly greenhouse-gas-free, renewable energy sources like wind and solar to gain the foothold needed to usher in a lasting green and safe energy future.

Alex is founder of . and executive editor of . In 2012 he founded the . To keep up with Alex’s latest articles and musings, you can .

17 Comments

  1. User avater
    Dana Dorsett | | #1

    500grams vs 900 grams is the wrong ratio, measured at the load.
    Comparing thermal-power plant carbon emissions per unit output at a 5/9 ratio is only true if they're running at the same thermal efficiency, which is rarely the case- it's too simple a model, that distorts the conclusions. Even with coal==> gas conversions the thermal efficiency of the gas plant is usually higher, and sometimes MUCH higher. The average thermal efficiency of combined-cycle gas base-load generators can hit 50% or higher (depending on capacity factor and specific technology), to thermal-coal's best-case 35%, and US fleet-average something like 25-30%. While folks in the coal biz point the finger at things like wind power subsidies and over-regulation of coal, it's the enhanced efficiency per source-BTU,(not just the under-priced gas) that is really making coal-power less economic.

    While there are other environmental issues to consider (mountaintop removal or strip-mining vs. fracking), and the size of the resource is misunderstood (and widely overstated) there's no real argument that fossil-gas is any where near as dirty as coal by any measure, and the 5/9 carbon ratio understates the real net-improvement, methane leakage (which can an should be better regulated than it currently is) or not.

    It's no environmental panacea, true, but shale & coal-seam gas does enable a rapid turn-down of the global warming hit, buying considerable time for building out the greener energy sources. The net greenhouse gas emissions in the US in 2012 was lower than at any time since 1994, in no small part due to the displacement of coal-fired power by both newer more efficient combined cycle gas and large scale wind power. While hanging the long-term future on it would be a mistake, it's still a path well worth continuing to pursue in the short and intermediate term. The benefits are huge, and quick, and even at the most pessimistic projections there is enough to go for quite awhile.

  2. Scott Smith | | #2

    reality
    Yet, then there's the reality of the enviromental and safety record of the gas companies:

    "Using records obtained by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP),
    the PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center identified a total of 3,355 violations of
    environmental laws by 64 different Marcellus Shale gas drilling companies between January 1,
    2008 and December 31, 2011. Of these violations, the PennEnvironment Research and Policy
    Center identified 2,392 violations that likely posed a direct threat to our environment and
    were not reporting or paperwork violations."

    Business Violations Report_0.pdf

    There's the Duke University study that shows a correlation between methane contamination in water wells and their proximity to gas wells:

    The industry publication that shows that by year 1, 4% of gas wells leak...by year 30, 60 % leak:

    The recent Colorado study that showed leakage of gas wells in the area to be twice what the industry estimated:

    And the list goes on and on...

  3. David Meiland | | #3

    What transition?
    How can we conclude that the "natural gas boom" means that coal will not be burned, because gas is so plentiful? Sure, in the short term it's probably true the generators will convert to gas, but after the gas is played out, we'll still have the coal and people will still want electricity. And in the meantime, the coal industry is making efforts to export more, such as the proposed "dry goods terminals" here in Washington and Oregon, for export of Powder River coal to Asia... so perhaps the coal will just get burned elsewhere.

    And, as we all know, low prices for gas will prevent the average person from thinking about conserving. Low fossil fuel prices are the last thing we need.

  4. Robert McClellan | | #4

    I wish it could be a bridge
    Natural Gas might be a good bridge to a carbon free energy economy…if only there were some incentive to cross it. Since Americans as a whole seem unable to bring themselves to pay more for anything that doesn’t appear immediately and with immediate tangible benefits, it’s likely that natural gas will become more of a delta than a bridge. Until there is a carbon tax or some other offset to cheap carbon based fuel—natural gas, coal and oil are all cheap compared to renewables right now—we will be hard pressed to develop the carbon-free energy economy that natural gas is touted as a bridge to.

    Then again, our society does tend to prefer to do things in a dramatic way. There is still a sliver of hope that we can have a Manhattan Project for alternative energy. Hope springs eternal.

  5. Mike Eastern NY | | #5

    The other Demand thing
    As the glut of natural gas takes over this is reducing the cost and reducing the incentive to make investments in sustainable solutions. I experience this daily in dealing with homeowners motivation to choose energy efficiency upgrades to their existing homes. If we are to use this energy and technology to reduce greenhouse emissions on the short run we need political cooperation and leadership to embrace the problem now and sell the public with the same intensity they sell their military solutions for everything. Otherwise how are the clean solutions to get any head wind and become a viable alternative?

  6. Bill Blackwell | | #6

    "As the glut of natural gas
    "As the glut of natural gas takes over this is reducing the cost and reducing the incentive to make investments in sustainable solutions."

    I suspect that these decisions were already hard sells prior to the natural gas boom. What makes the current market more difficult is not the current price of power/heat, but the dent in the longer-term story of increasing energy costs. A GSHP is uneconomic in almost every market, and without the threat of long-term energy price rises, this becomes more transparent. Solar DHW? Also a bad idea. Martin Holladay's blog has covered that multiple times. Residential PV? Not outside the southern or western US, and especially not without significant subsidies.

    However, does it remove the incentive for better insulation or better windows? Not a chance. You're selling comfort and durability as much as energy savings there. Also, you can sell daylight,, too. Very few homeowners, especially in upstate NY, will want to make their homes darker and more dreary through the winter. These are also the things that smart, green builders and architects should have been selling all along.

    @Alex - You've pulled some good materials together about the downside of gas, but you do focus WAY too much about gas in a standalone fashion. As Dana points out, staying on coal is much, much worse than continuing to shift to natural gas. While there may be a geologist or three out there who is worried that there may be less recoverable energy in these areas than is currently estimated, the guys who are making the estimates inside the various oil and gas companies have strong incentives to get it right (big lawsuits have been won over reserve overstatements). Some latest estimates show that new discoveries in Texas, alone, could equal close to 1/6th of the output of the OPEC-9. Add in the Marcellus, Bakken and other shale plays elsewhere in the US, and we have breathing room on energy for the next 30 years. Some will get exported, but that adds cost and capacity constraints (look at wellhead pricing for WTI versus North Sea Brent to see how this plays out currently).

    The frac mix and "cuttings" issues are real, but manageable. They are also certainly not on a par with even the basic mercury release associated with burning coal. You also don't get the S2x and N2x issues with gas compared to coal. It's not just the CO2 that gives methane an advantage. A properly applied cement job should eliminate any groundwater contamination. Perhaps a video can explain this better:

    Fair disclosure: my paycheck comes from this industry. I don't think the solution is perfect by any stretch, but I also don't think that our collective lifestyles are such that we should roll with the status quo until such time as the perfect solution comes along. Solar and wind are definitely part of the future, but baseload generation is just that - base. That, or we need to decide that we like uncertain power delivery and orient our lives, and economy, around it.

  7. User avater
    Dana Dorsett | | #7

    I guess in fairness...
    I should really disclose that I have a brother-in-law who makes a living as an oil and gas geologist, not that he & I see eye-to-eye on most thing energy or climate related. (I felt a bit better about his work when he was doing coal-seam gas stuff in Zimbabwe a few years ago rather than his current oil-sands gig in Alberta, but I understand how the pay security and personal security issue are better in Canada than in Zimbabwe, eh? Ever seen a 100 trillion Zimbabwe-dollar note? "I'll take that in rand, dollars, remimbe, or euro, please!")

    It IS true that the coal mostly won't be burned if the US grid shifts from coal to higher efficiency gas plants, since these are 40-50 year investment plays that are not cheap to convert. Even though the current $$/TBTU for gas is at ridiculous all time market lows, most powerplants lock into long term contracts at MUCH higher prices to protect them from the very high price volatility of gas markets. In many cases they are FORCED to make those deals in order to gain financing, on what would otherwise be a very dicey situation 5- 10 years hence should the gas price triple or quadruple on the spot market. Their investors/bankers simply won't sign off on projects that are only viable at the current spot-market price.

    By contrast, large scale wind turns out to be much lower risk- all of the cost is in the financing for the hardware, the marginal cost per kwh is fairly stable and nearly-free. The interest rates (and thus the lifecycle per-Twh cost) are negotiated up front. (I s'pose disclosure is necessary here too- I'm distantly related by marriage to the developer of the Cape Wind offshore wind project, though I've only met him a few times, in wedding/funeral contexts, and have yet to have a conversation of substance with him related to the project.)

    The perceived competition between wind and gas for power generation isn't as large as generally believed- they actually play-nice together at the optimal grid-fraction mix, and the smarter the grid, the bigger role gas can play in grid-hardening wind a base generator, and the easier it is for wind to become a to-the-fractional minute grid-stabilizing generator, since it can ramp up & cut back output at rates orders of magnitude faster than thermal power.

    The German utility Lichtblick has taken it to the next level, with a fleet of gas-fired building-scale heat & power cogenerators (developed by Volkswagen) under the direct control of the utility as a means of both grid-hardening and stabilizing their growing wind output capacity. See: (play the vidi, even if your German isn't up to snuff- the concept is pretty clear from the graphics. So rather than settling for ~50% thermal efficiency on the fuel use in a cc gas powerplant, the get 85%+ net thermal efficiency from the fuel (by using it's low-temp thermal output directly for space heating), while enabling a greater fraction of the grid to be supported by wind, garnering grid stability previously unattainable with any large scale thermal-power mix.

  8. Lucas Durand - 7A | | #8

    Response to David Meiland.
    I think you're bang on about exports - if it can be transported, it'll be traded.
    Coal is largely being displaced, not replaced.

    Australia is a case in point - they have a federal carbon tax in play, yet rank as the number two coal exporter in the world with plans to expand coal exports in the future.

    Canada is another slightly different example...
    Domestic energy security from tar sands syncrude?
    Not likely - they're practically doing back-flips in Ottawa and the oil patch trying to get the "Northern Gateway" open so they can export the stuff from Pacific coast terminals at higher Brent (world) prices (apparently WTI prices at ~$85-$100/bbl aren't turning the kind of profits they'd like).

    If we actually want to have a chance at heading off climate disaster, fossil fuels will have to stay in the ground.
    But that ain't what appears to be happening.

  9. David Meiland | | #9

    Unsupported assertions
    Dana, you clearly have a grasp of a lot of technical material, but your contention that "It IS true that the coal mostly won't be burned if the US grid shifts from coal to higher efficiency gas plants" is absolutely impossible to rely on. Perhaps you have a crystal ball. Gas could play out, go up in price, prove to be environmentally disastrous at the well, or suffer some other setback... and make the shift non-permanent. Who will be surprised if in 5 or 10 or 20 years we're looking at a completely different reality than today?

    Bill Blackwell did a better job of using an appropriate non-absolute term when he used "should" instead of "will" in his statement that "A properly applied cement job should eliminate any groundwater contamination", at least allowing the possibility of groundwater contamination.

    The gas industry only has to do a few things to allay widespread concerns. First, they should demonstrate conclusively that fracking is not going to result in major groundwater contamination problems, in the short or long term. Second, they should demonstrate that methane leaks from wells won't be a problem, in the short or long term. Easy, huh? Then we'll know this is a safe road to go down.

    If anyone believes the gas industry will be responsible about this sort of thing, my question is, why would they? Groundwater contamination and methane leaks could occurs years or decades after executives and investors have taken home their money. There is no need to be accountable. Problems seem most likely to occur in the long term, and can hardly be measured now, so....

    I'm not arguing the gas vs coal issue. It seems a settled fact that burning gas is less harmful than burning coal. I burn gas in my kitchen.

  10. William Rau | | #10

    I second Bennet Sander's observations
    And would like to add a few of my own.

    I think wind power should be brought in when comparisons with gas and coal are made. Thermal power loses do not play a role in wind power generation, so the issue of coal versus gas efficiency becomes moot. Second, compare the water usage of wind versus either gas or coal. Third, compare the robustness of wind compared to fossil fuel or nuclear generation. In the last freezing spell in Texas, a lot of gas generators went off line because gas pipes froze. When the tsunami took out Fukushima, a shallow water wind farm just to the north rode out the big waves just fine. It remained operational until the grid went down. Fourth, safety. Remember when Breezy Point, NY burnt to the ground after Hurricane Sandy? That was a natural gas fire. The gas co. did not turn off the spigot to the town and when houses were sheared of their foundations, gas was leaking everywhere and fed the frames. The first news feed from Reuters called it a gas fire; then the news cables went silent on the subject.

    One point on shale gas. In many areas produced water is radioactive and hypersaline. A common way to get rid of this radioactive garbage is to spray it on roads as a dust control agent or to sell it to county road crews as a de-icer.

    Here's another way to get rid of it:

    Fracking will turn large swaths of rural America into toxic wastelands and export colonies for overseas markets when a significant fraction of shale gas production is shipped via LNG terminals in the gulf.

    Some utility executives refer to gas as the crack cocaine of the energy industry. So, I'll say it once again: GBA will look prophetic 10 years from now due to their efforts to get homes off gas

  11. Bill Blackwell | | #11

    Safety and Reserves
    "Who will be surprised if in 5 or 10 or 20 years we're looking at a completely different reality than today?"

    In terms of expected reserves not playing out? There will be an enormous number of very, very smart people who would be that have access to resources you and I could not dream about, and whose job it is to be right about such things. Exxon is building the world's fastest computer to do reservoir modeling and geophysical interpretation. All of the major oil producers spend billions of dollars every year on seismic studies and modeling so that they can know where to poke a 3 - 5 mile long straw for the least cost and to extract the greatest amount of hydrocarbons. Please say what you want about the industry not being the cleanest or friendliest or charitable, but this is cutting to the bone about the industry being bad at what it does. The industry would not be as profitable as it is if this were the case. You don't cut corners into that kind of profitability. You get that kind of profitability because you are very, very good at what you do.

    I won't touch the environmental questions. There is, frankly, no good that comes from that tackling that issue.

    William - No one vaguely close to the inside of the wind industry will try to advocate for the idea that wind power is as robust as your anecdotes try to make it seem. Wind is not continuous, so wind power is a challenge to be included in what's known as "base load". This is where coal and nuclear dominate, and where gas has made fast and deep inroads. What gas is also good at providing is intermediate and "peak" load since it is much, much easier to spin up and spin down a gas turbine than it is to heat up a coal plant or bring a reactor online. PV is good for day-time baseload in some parts of the country, and not others.

    To stay on the topic of wind power, which I like -- a lot -- is the wind farm in question the one reported that was 300km away from the epicenter? If so, that's not really "just north".

    Beyond that, I think I'll leave the rest of the debate to those who wish to debate.

  12. Dennis Heidner | | #12

    5 to 10 years out....
    Even if the North American has reserves of natural gas that would last hundreds of years, we are still likely to be exporting significant quantities AND that will increase the base price. I would expect that we have plenty in ten years, but the price to be sitting above $8Mcf. Why? Because many other countries would prefer not to take on the environmental risks (unless forced into it) and they will be competing with the domestic market for the production. Japan and Korea do not have large supplies of domestic natural gas.

    The US is a major exporter of coal, and not just to China. After the tsunami in Japan, Germany decided to phase out all their nuclear plants. As the licenses expired they were not renewed, if they were in process of repairs and upgrades - that was stopped. As a result, the many of the previous plans Germany had to reduce its coal use had to be changed. In 2012 they imported and used more coal from the US and Columbia. (I used to kid my cousins that they sent us VW, Porsche, Audi, BMWs, bratwurst and beer -- and exchange we sent them KFC, Burger King, MacDonalds, Pizza Hut and Starbucks.... I guess I need to add coal the the list.)

    Natural Gas, coal, and oil are used as feed stocks for industry. Not just to burn them, but also as part of the process to synthesize other chemicals -- including thing like ibuprofen! Many of our fertilizers and commonly used household chemicals (ammonia) come from the fossil fuel feed stocks.

    The point is that even if nearly everyone in the US would agree not to use NG or Coal for electricity or heat - we would still be using it. So the key is to use what we have MUCH MUCH more effectively and hold the feet of the producers to the flaring fires when they fail to meet the legal expectations.

    I have renewables on my house, I am going for nearly netzero, but I also understand that only a small percentage of people in North America can do that. I am in the minority not the majority! Then with that in mind - remember the population of North America is a fraction of the population in Asia! Large changes here - have little impact globally. We will not be able to stop the export of coal to China - nor do we want to! China has supplies of coal - but often with higher sulfur content. Instead the "developed countries" need to make sure the technology to use the resources wisely and with little impact is also made AND used overseas.

    In one of the journals I read over the weekend - the Chinese author pointed out that 40% of the energy used in northern China is for building heat! And it wasn't coming from electric heat -- nope, they are still burning the coal in open stoves in many buildings.

    We can argue all we want about the impact of fossil fuels in the US and renewables - but until we also are able to transfer low impact (and low cost) energy technologies back to the developing countries -- the battle will be lost and 650ppm will look like a low number.

  13. Lucas Durand - 7A | | #13

    Response to Bill Blackwell.

    In terms of expected reserves not playing out? There will be an enormous number of very, very smart people who would be that have access to resources you and I could not dream about, and whose job it is to be right about such things.

    Bill,
    No doubt you're right about this...
    But I might rephrase slightly to say "...and whose job it is to TRY to be right about such things".
    As I'm sure you know, "recoverable reserves" aren't the same as a "resource".

    "Recoverable proved reserves: The proved reserves of natural gas as of December 31 of any given year are the estimated quantities of natural gas which geological and engineering data demonstrates with reasonable certainty to be recoverable in the future from known natural oil and gas reservoirs under existing economic and operating conditions."

    Reads to me like the people you refer to can only provide an estimate of how much of a resource is recoverable insofar as their prediction of future economic and operating conditions is correct.

    Would you care to try to predict what economic conditions will be in 5, 10 or 15 years?
    Sounds pretty tricky to me...
    Even with the world's fastest computers...

  14. Bennett Sandler | | #14

    @ Bill Blackwell

    "However, does [gas] remove the incentive for better insulation or better windows? Not a chance. You're selling comfort and durability as much as energy savings there."

    **Nonsense. It's widely recognized in green building circles that access to natural gas kills the financial incentive for energy conservation and renewables. In my neck of the woods our conversion rate reflects that: we can't sell insulation or renewable projects to people who heat with gas. In the last three years we have sold four projects in the natural gas market and over 40 outside of it.

    "Who will be surprised if in 5 or 10 or 20 years we're looking at a completely different reality than today?"

    **Certainly not the scientists who are looking at the reality of climate change.

    "You get that kind of profitability because you are very, very good at what you do."

    **So success legitimizes itself. Is Exxon good at drilling? Or good at buying off democratic government, socializing costs, getting exemptions from regulations and tax subsidies, bullying defenseless third world countries, and sabotaging our attempts to reduce addiction? Drug dealing is also extremely profitable, but I don't think anyone would make a similar defense of it.

    "I won't touch the environmental questions. There is, frankly, no good that comes from that tackling that issue."

    **An odd statement to make on a green building site. Gas is green. Until it's not, and then green suddenly doesn't matter.

    Engaging in these disagreements feels ridiculous and I wouldn't waste time, except that I live in a shale "play," and when you can see first hand how these guys operate and how dangerous they are it really puts things in a whole different perspective.

  15. Bennett Sandler | | #15

    This "solution" is the problem
    The idea that natural gas is somehow going to get us to a sustainable energy future is a clever marketing strategy that gets the fossil fuel industry off the hook and prevents us from embracing difficult and necessary change. It should remind us of the infamous work of the tobacco industry a generation ago, more so since the same ad agencies are behind it. This is sustainability in the narrow context of corporate profits.

    When the fossil fuel giants talk about the energy problem, they do it very carefully. Usually the sound bite is something along the lines of Exxon's CEO Rex Tillerson in the company's 2012 Outlook for Energy: "In the decades ahead the world will need to expand energy supplies in a way that is safe, secure, affordable, and environmentally responsible. The scale of the challenge is enormous and requires an integrated set of solutions and the pursuit of all economic options."

    Compare that with Obama in 2012: "“We’ve got to invest in a serious, sustained, all-of-the-above energy strategy that develops every resource available for the 21st century.”

    There is a powerful alignment of interests that absolutely refuses to discuss energy waste and conservation. As the world's largest energy hog, we keep talking about expanding future supply and not about reducing future demand.

    I think this polite and evenhanded analysis plays into that rigged dialogue and risks giving a lot of credibility to an industry that doesn't deserve any. The companies developing and marketing hydraulic fracturing are the same ones that have worked for decades to torpedo all efforts at a national energy policy, the same ones that used Cheney's help to carve out environmental exemptions you can drive a frack truck through. As Bill McKibben has pointed out, the reserves these companies currently claim are enough to cook us five times over. Their business model is actually the death of human civilization.

    An important correction, Alex: you say that,

    " the widely publicized claim by a Cornell University scientist that the greenhouse gas impact of natural gas is greater than that of coal has largely been dismissed."

    While it is true that Howarth and Ingraffea's work has been the target of a coordinated and ruthless attack by the fossil fuel lobby, recent NOAA research has confirmed their estimates and suggests that they might even too low.

    See for example, this report in the journal Nature () "Scientists are once again reporting alarmingly high methane emissions from an oil and gas field, underscoring questions about the environmental benefits of the boom in natural-gas production that is transforming the US energy system."

    I hope that we soon realize that a "lasting green and safe energy future" is only possible if we attack our own waste instead of the earth beneath us. And that means finally seeing fossil fuel itself as the problem. If gas is our savior, we are doomed.

  16. Bill Blackwell | | #16

    "Sounds pretty tricky to
    "Sounds pretty tricky to me..."

    Lucas - As I said, I have no interest in the debate or being someone's personal punching bag.Thanks, but I've got better things to do, like read about how to make my next home more energy efficient and durable. One tip for you: what goes on the balance sheet is what has a high confidence that it can be recovered. The estimates are best thought of as "at least", and not "exact". Estimates are still estimates. Since I'm feeling charitable, let me start you off with a few links:








    @Bennett - From deep in the heart of the oil patch, from a production builder::

    Your community may want to inform the guys linked above that their entire business model is infeasible.

    As for the rest, I don't particularly like being quoted out of context with a 'gotcha' attitude. At the end of the day, you still drive a car and your business wouldn't exist without mine -- however you want to take that.

    Whether gas is "green" or not begs all sorts of questions. Perhaps some of the more pragmatic builders could get in another debate here with some of the more militant members about who was, or was not, allowed inside the tent. Feel what you may about natural gas. It is still better than coal. Whether it is "good" or merely "less bad" is up to you.

    As to the drug dealer reference: really? Is that the best you can do? Surely you could have sneaked a 'Hitler' reference in there, too. Maybe go old school and trot out some of the rest of the cast from Nuremberg? If you want to throw a straw man around, at least do it with panache!

  17. Lucas Durand - 7A | | #17

    Response to Bill Blackwell.
    Bill,
    I'm sorry you feel like a "punching bag".

    Thanks for your charity - although I'm not sure what it proves.

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