Fight climate change with natural gas

People don’t realize that shale gas has helped us reduce carbon emissions, writes a petroleum geologist

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Today’s heated debates about natural gas production in the Marcellus Shale often boil down to a single issue: the environmental impact from fracking. But a troubling aspect of the divide over shale gas production is that its dramatic effect on reducing America’s carbon footprint is one that few people can discern.

To be sure, there are many reasons to favor horizontal drilling and fracking — thanks to this great technological innovation, natural gas production in the United States has increased as much as 27 percent since 2007 and the United States has eclipsed Russia as the world’s No. 1 gas producer.

The shale revolution has contributed greatly to America’s energy supply, produced a lot of revenue and jobs in Pennsylvania and other states, spurred a comeback in manufacturing, provided clean-burning fuel for transportation and bolstered our nation geopolitically. But don’t lose sight of its environmental benefits, which in less than a decade have been game-changing.

The shale revolution is generating real-world consequences in the battle against climate change. For anyone concerned about the release of heat-trapping greenhouse emissions that are warming the planet, the switch from coal to natural gas is already producing a host of good effects.

Here in Pennsylvania, coal accounts for 39 percent of the state’s electricity use, down from 48 percent in 2005, while the use of natural gas for power production has increased from 14 percent to 24 percent and is rising. Over the past decade, a reduction in airborne emissions of sulfur dioxide, mercury and other particulates from coal burning has improved air quality, with beneficial results for public health, especially the elderly and people with asthma and lung ailments.

Nationally, the switch from coal to natural gas is the principal reason carbon dioxide emissions have dropped to 1990s levels, according to the International Energy Agency. Indeed, the United States has taken the lead globally in cutting carbon emissions. Credit for this goes to the increased use of natural gas in power production.

How so? For each unit of energy produced, a megawatt-hour of natural gas-fired generation produces less than half the amount of carbon dioxide emissions as coal-fired generation.

Those who question whether the expanded use of gas for power production in the United States is sustainable, given the multiple demands on its use, should consider that natural gas resources in the United States are virtually inexhaustible. The U.S. Geological Survey reports that the United States has more than 100 years’ worth of natural gas. What’s more, geologists have only scratched the surface of potential shale resources. Most of the gas is still trapped in shale after initial fracking, and engineers are trying to come up with a practical and cost-effective way to reach it.

If replicated in other countries with sizable shale resources, fracking could stimulate a global shift from coal to gas. By making such technology available to countries like China, Australia and Argentina, which have sizable shale formations, further reductions in the world’s carbon emissions would become possible.

The Obama administration could be doing a lot more to show that it recognizes the crucial role of natural gas in carbon mitigation. While energy production on private and state lands has increased in recent years, it has declined on federal land. Particularly in western states like Nevada and Utah where much of the land is owned by the federal government, restrictive permitting policies for energy development are holding back natural gas production. This practice runs counter to the administration’s claim that it is serious about combating climate change.

We need action at all levels of government to ensure that the percentage of low-carbon power generation is growing sufficiently to stave off the worst effects of climate change. Encouraging the production of natural gas — and its export for use in other countries — is probably the single most effective way to do that.

John J. Interval is an independent petroleum geologist who consults with companies producing gas from the Marcellus Shale (jinterval@verizon.net). He lives in Bridgeville.


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