Saturday, February 19, 2011

100 years of natural gas?

The shale gas industry's claim that toxic fracking extraction technologies have supposedly given us 100 years of natural gas, is exaggerated.

"Conventional" supplies of "unnatural gas" in the US are in decline and will not be available for electricity generation in the not-too-distant future. Exponential growth of consumption is also ignored by these public relations claims, since 100 years of current consumption would not be 100 years of supply if consumption continues to increase, something rarely considered in any discussion of resource availability.

An example is what happened with the natural gas supply in New Mexico earlier this month. A severe cold snap threatened unnatural gas supplies, and the state had to shut down some large users until it warmed up.

Natural gas supply claims of "100 years" are based on grossly exaggerated claims for "fracking" of shale gas. Geologist Art Berman's analysis suggests this estimate has been exaggerated by an order of magnitude. Most shale gas wells are short term producers; they decline much faster than regular wells. The claims are being exaggerated by companies who want to boost their stock values, and Wall Street plays along because if there is a huge amount of natural gas, then there will be more economic "growth" than there will be if these companies are lying.

I have a number of technical articles about this exaggeration linked at

To date, most of the environmentalist objection to fracking has been based on the obvious toxic impact of using poisonous solvents that contaminate groundwater. But the depletion of fuels that keep homes warm in the winter should also be an environmental concern. If we had any sense as a society we would reduce military spending and redirect it toward a nationwide and global "transition town" type effort.

Renewable energy could power a much smaller, steady state economy. That is the lesson I've learned from using solar power for twenty years. Relocalization of food production is probably the single most important response to finite fossil fuels, even more important than thinking about increasing supplies of any form of energy (as important as supply side approaches may be in the near term).

The future of natural gas is not about burning more of it to offset coal combustion or prevent nuclear reactor construction. Instead, the future of unnatural gas is a mix of the following "Sophie's Choices":

- Shale Gas: a desperate effort to maintain supplies; toxic "fracking" and exaggerated supplies.
- Offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, since onshore supplies are in sharp decline. The only reason any oil and gas company would want to drill in deep waters is that the easier oil and gas is long past their peaks. Much of Texas's natural gas is now coming from offshore wells or the Barnett shale deposits. The low hanging fruit has been eaten.
- Liquid Natural Gas terminals, including proposals on the Oregon coast largely intended to supply fuel for power generation in California. Note that most of the world's commerce in LNG goes to Japan and Korea, two highly industrialized countries that do not have domestic fossil fuel supplies (oil, natural gas, coal).
- Coal bed methane. This has toxic impacts to water supplies, although perhaps not as severe as shale gas fracking.
- The proposed natural gas pipeline from Alaska to the Midwestern US. The Alaska Pipeline is in steep decline with about a third of the oil flow it had at its peak in 1988 (21 years ago). But there is still considerable natural gas on the North Slope and the Arctic offshore resources are more likely to be natural gas than oil. Natural gas cannot be shipped through the existing Alaska Pipeline so industry is pushing construction of a very long pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to central Canada and then to the lower 48.

In all of the years I've watched Peak Energy issues, I have never heard either the champions of more drilling in Alaska nor its most vocal foes mention how Alaska's oil production peaked 11 years after it started and now it is mostly over. Here in Oregon, if you use oil in Oregon, or eat food transported by truck, train or plane in Oregon, then you use Alaska oil. There are some nice food relocalization efforts underway in the region but the oil will be gone by the time we are able to feed ourselves without outside food shipments.

Geologist Art Berman, who's done some pioneering studies of the shale gas industry, states it's likely the "100 years" claim is in part a scheme to inflate stock values (of the drilling companies). His analysis of the Barnett Shale near Dallas suggests wild exaggeration of the supplies, but as long as there is PR-like "100-year supply" in the media, that keeps the stock values up, and also keeps up confidence that the stock market as a whole is in good shape. Shale gas wells do not have a long lifespan; they deplete much faster than "conventional" gas drilling wells.

The existing "conventional" natural gas is dropping off. That is the primary motivation for fracking shale gas. I'm against shale gas, regular gas, hot air from all flavors of politics. But the reality is Peak Everything - Peaked Oil, Peak Natural Gas, even Peak Coal is on the near-term horizon. There's not enough fossil fuel to keep "growth" going, but there is enough to further foul air and water.

A "not in anyone's backyard" approach makes more sense to me -- uniting communities opposed to more nukes with those challenging shale gas fracking. I don't support pitting one poisonous technology against another.

The fact that industry would resort to increasingly dirty, expensive, energy-intensive means to extract fossil energy shows that the low hanging fruit is on the wane. Industry's response is shale gas, LNG, offshore drilling, mountaintop removal, and more nuclear power (despite Peak Uranium).

The environmentalists merely point out these techologies are toxic (true) without mentioning depletion, the limits to growth, and the fact that renewable energy is less energy-dense than fossil fuels (that is the reason we use fossil energy). I've used photo-voltaic solar cells for twenty years. It's great, but it's not physically possible to replace the fossil energy with renewables, especially on the energy downslope we are now inevitably on.

Natural gas is not going to be a "transitional" fuel since it is in decline in the US. Shale gas will be very temporary, and natural gas is overused. We will need to reserve some of the remaining gas to keep northern cities from having their pipes freeze in the winter. Running natural gas for electricity was a strategic mistake (a perspective you won't hear from most "environmental" groups).

Replacing some of the natural gas in the electric grid is one of the primary (hidden) motivations behind liquidating forests and tree farms for biofuel electricity.

It's particularly sad that the toxic impact of fracking is a permanent pollution problem for a very short term supply boost.

Geology is not subject to politics.

--Mark Robinowitz Peak Choice: Cooperation or Collapse

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"... it's not physically possible to replace the fossil energy with renewables, especially on the energy downslope we are now inevitably on."

Exactly. What we need is a thorough analysis of the energy needed to build all the alternative energy infrastructure - the energy that needs to be spent up front to get a variable trickle of energy over the next 25 years or so. I have attempted this for PV in an article "The energy dynamics of energy production" at and it shows there is an "energy barrier" to be overcome which is especially big for technologies with low ERoEI like PV and nuclear.

In an era of energy-scarcity, we can start on a great conversion project, but at some stage we will run out of spare energy to complete the conversion. We should have started on this decades ago, when fossil fuels were still plentiful. Now it is impossible.

Just like the super-optimistic claims for shale gas, PV salesmen claim unrealistic values for the ERoEI of solar. Everyone is trying to bamboozle everyone else to make a quick buck, but the Laws of Thermodynamics will not be cheated.