28 Jun 2010: Opinion

Natural Gas as Panacea:
Dubious Path to a Green Future

Many energy experts contend natural gas is the ideal fuel as the world makes the transition to renewable energy. But since much of that gas will come from underground shale, potentially at high environmental cost, it would be far better to skip the natural gas phase and move straight to massive deployment of solar and wind power.

by daniel b. botkin

For several years, many voices, including Texas energy baron T. Boone Pickens, have been touting natural gas as the best energy source to form a bridge between the current fossil-fuel economy and a renewable energy future. Proponents contend that not only is natural gas a cleaner-burning fuel than coal, producing lower greenhouse gas emissions, but that reserves of natural gas are far greater than previously believed because of vast reserves trapped throughout the U.S — and around the world — in huge underground formations of shale.

Earlier this month, Britain’s New Scientist magazine published an article about shale gas entitled, “Wonderfuel: Welcome to the Age of Unconventional Gas.” Last month, the Wall Street Journal ran its own op-ed ode to shale gas: “Shale Gas Will Rock the World.” The author, Amy Myers Jaffe — a fellow in energy studies at Rice University — wrote, “I am convinced that shale gas will revolutionize the industry — and change the world — in the coming decades.” She even suggested that the abundance of natural gas in shale deposits worldwide will slow the transition to a renewable energy future.

“It may be a lot harder to persuade people to adopt green power that needs heavy subsidies when there’s a cheap, plentiful fuel out there that’s a lot cleaner than coal, even if gas isn’t as politically popular as wind or solar,” Jaffe wrote.

But after spending the last few years analyzing all the sources of energy available to the United States, I am convinced that the choice is clear: Based on existing technology, solar and wind are the only practical alternatives
The fact that shale gas exists in abundance is beyond question.
that would provide America with abundant, independent energy with few undesirable environmental and human-health effects. While shale gas is estimated to be abundant, and the proponents tell you that it will be easy to extract the gas with few environmental effects, in fact this is a relatively experimental technology that has potentially large environmental risks.

The water pollution concerns alone should be sufficient to make the U.S. and other countries rethink future reliance on shale gas. Separating the gas from the shale, a process known as hydrofracturing, involves forcing a mixture of water, chemicals, and sand at high pressure down a well bore and into rock formations, creating small fractures that release the trapped gas. The process uses a huge amount of water — the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation estimates as much as 1 million gallons per well — at a time when water is already a limiting and precious resource. Second, hydraulic fracturing fluid may come back to the surface, or near enough, to affect groundwater supplies. This fluid is a mixture of chemicals including friction reducers, biocides to prevent the growth of bacteria that would damage the well piping or clog the fractures, a gel to carry materials into the fractures, and various other substances. Returning to the surface, it could also bring other environmentally damaging materials, such as heavy metals.

Advocates for shale gas claim that these effects will be minor. Others, including those in charge of water supplies, are not persuaded. In Pennsylvania, wells claimed to be safe have leaked natural gas into local domestic water supplies, with the gas bubbling out of faucets. Also in Pennsylvania, fracturing fluids have leaked before they have been sent underground and have also contaminated drinking water. These problems suggest that returning fracturing fluids to the surface could cause similar problems on a large scale.

That shale gas exists in abundance — in the U.S., Europe, Australia, China, South Africa, and other regions — is beyond question. New Scientist reported that enough recoverable shale gas exists to meet the world’s needs
Most of the gas is so deep underground that nobody is sure we can get at it.
for 60 years. The Marcellus Shale region in the eastern U.S. reportedly contains enough shale gas to meet U.S. natural gas demand for a century. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology released a report last week forecasting that, in part because of the exploitation of abundant shale gas reserves, natural gas will go from making up 20 percent of he U.S.’s energy supply today to 40 percent within several decades.

But what is the reality behind the optimistic claims for shale gas? The U.S. Geological Survey lists natural gas “reserves” — the amount believed to be in the ground — in four categories: readily available with current technologies, which accounts for only 1 percent of the known natural gas in U.S. territorial limits; technically recoverable (5 percent); marginal targets for accelerated technology (6 percent); and unknown but probable (84 percent). Shale gas shares the fourth category with coal gas and methyl hydrates. The latter are a kind of water ice with methane embedded in it and occur only where it is very cold, in Arctic permafrost and below 3,000 feet in the oceans.

In researching how best to make the transition to the green energy future, one of the first calculations I made was to find out how long the natural gas in each of the four categories would last if we obtained it independently — that is, only from U.S. territory. I was shocked by the result: Just using our 2006 rates of use of natural gas consumption — not including any major transition to fueling our cars and trucks — the “readily available” gas within the United States would be exhausted in just one year. That, plus what is called “technically recoverable” gas, would be gone in less than a decade. What is termed “unknown but probable” would last about a century.

This means that any significant increase in our consumption of natural gas will have to come from the “unknown but probable” reserves, much of which will be from formations of shale, a sedimentary rock formed from muds in which bacteria released methane. Most of this gas is so deep underground or otherwise not very accessible that nobody is really sure that we can get at a lot of it, or of how high an environmental price we must pay to retrieve it.

Currently available wind and solar energy technologies, on the other hand, are up to the job right now. There just aren’t enough wind and solar installations, so today they provide less than 1 percent of the nation’s energy. We will need to rapidly scale up, so that by 2050 we can receive the
Solar and wind do not have the enormous environmental and economic costs of developing shale gas.
majority of our energy from wind and solar power. That’s an enormous task: The U.S. Census Bureau forecasts that our population will reach 440 million by 2050 — nearly a 50 percent increase from today. That’s 150 million more people, each hoping to live at the standard of living we have grown accustomed to. When that happens, the amount of fossil fuels we use today, and which provide 86 percent of America’s energy, would provide those 440 million with less than two-thirds the energy they would need, if per-capita energy use remains the same as today.

Contrary to standard criticisms of solar and wind, providing this much energy in the future would not use up a lot of land. Based on current installations, less than 1 percent of U.S. land area would be required. Right now, 22 percent of U.S. land is in agriculture, not counting grassland pasture and range used by grazing animals.

What about costs? Wind is the cheapest energy source, with installation costs as low or lower than coal’s. There’s no need to pay for fuel, and no huge costs to repair the environmental damage caused by strip-mining and underground mining, let alone costs involved to try to develop “clean-burning coal.”

This leaves two problems: that solar and wind are variable from hour to hour, and that solar is, at present, the most expensive energy source to install, costing about four times as much per unit output as wind.

There are several ways to deal with the variability in solar and wind. First of all, we will not make a sudden leap from fossil fuels to solar and wind. Instead, there will be a slow transition as production and installation of solar and wind increase. During this transition, we will want to use all our energy sources, each for its best purposes. A few years ago there was a day in Spain during which one-third of the electrical energy came from solar, and nothing untoward happened — no grid failures, no blackouts; just business as usual. Fossil fuels and nuclear power plants can compensate for a good while for variations in solar and wind output.

As for solar power, the costs of producing new cells — photovoltaic or otherwise — are moving rapidly down, and increased research and development will inevitably lead to a similar decline in installation costs.

A Controversial Drilling Practice
Hits Roadblock in New York City

Hydro fracturing is a profitable method of natural gas extraction that uses large quantities of water and chemicals to free gas from underground rock formations. But New York City’s concerns about the practice have slowed a juggernaut that has been sweeping across parts of the northeastern U.S., Bruce Stutz reports.
We won’t want to get completely away from liquid fuels. Gasoline, kerosene, and diesel fuel are wonderful ways to store, transport, and use energy. A gallon of gasoline contains an amazingly large amount of energy and is relatively safe and very convenient. Rather than expend our technological research and development on ways to get shale gas from deep bedrock, we could develop a kind of reverse refinery, dissociating water to hydrogen and oxygen, combining the hydrogen with carbon to give us methane (natural gas), and combining that with oxygen to give us ethanol. Developing this technology will be a major challenge, but I believe it is not beyond the creative and innovative science and engineering that has typified America.

I’m not proposing that America get 100 percent of its energy from solar and wind, just that we be heavily invested in these forms of energy that do not have the enormous potential environmental and economic costs of developing shale gas reserves.

Maintaining our high standard of living, our creative and innovative civilization, will not come easily. It needs lots of energy. It’s the great challenge of the future that must be approached openly, beyond special interests and ideologies. We can do it — there is a safe, sustainable, abundant-energy future. The question is, will we do it? Do we have the political will, the funding for inventiveness, and a government sufficiently independent of special interests for this to happen?

POSTED ON 28 Jun 2010 IN Business & Innovation Energy Energy Europe North America 


The perfect fuel is not readily available. Any fuel - including solar (land mass, and distribution issues) and wind (unstable supply and dead birds) - have downsides.

The number of incidents attached to hydro-fracking which attach to recovering natural gas fro shale deposits, plus the (according to unbiased sources) the fact there there is about a 100 year supply available in North America, PLUS the chemistry which makes it the cleanest of the fossil fuels makes Natural Gas the best (not perfect) transition fuel for America.

Posted by Rich Galen on 28 Jun 2010

Natural gas is not touched by human though? If we are talking about natural products, we must get rid of politics and manipulation of the natural wealth, have the common sense of human that can make use of natural resources, but because of common sense is too much that causes the shift of the balance of nature, a result of the priority of personal interests, groups or countries. We can even take advantage of the natural riches of another planet in a way to unite the interests of all humans on earth.

Posted by F Risada on 28 Jun 2010

The choice isn't between gas and solar/wind. Solar and wind energy is attractive. But, what is really critical for this country is to find alternatives to the use of gasoline and diesel for transportation. We need to focus on transportation energy more than other uses.

Solar and wind may produce electricity that can be stored in batteries for cars, but if we can use gas to power trucks, then we can make great progress in reducing diesel fuel. Thus, a closer look at the recent reports concerning water pollution.

Posted by Barry on 28 Jun 2010

The clean 'transition' is highly energy- and water-intensive 'unconventional' gas. Climate impacts should have been more closely examined!

Here's a preliminary assessment which suggests that shale and tight-sands gas is worse then coal as far as life-cycle GHG emissions:


Posted by robert jereski on 28 Jun 2010

Anybody who thinks natural gas is a cleaner more environmentally preferred alternative should be forced to watch Gasland which can be watched on HBO on Demand.

It made me sick to watch what fracking is doing to people as well as our water supply.

Posted by Anna@Green Talk on 29 Jun 2010

Two comments. First, I suggest Mr Botkin read the article "Moore's Curse and the Great Energy Delusion." In my opinion, Mr Botkin is deluded if he thinks wind and solar can be a viable alternative to oil or natural gas in the near future. Second, in my opinion, a viable alternative to natural gas is methane produced by feeding compressed CO2 to genetically modified microorganisms. Dr Craig Venter is working on such a project, sponsored by Exxon/Mobile. Imagine a coal-fired power plant also producing methane with their emissions.

Let me state unequivocally, the ONLY real solution is for a cheaper clean and abundant alternative energy technology to be introduced to the market. Unless clean energy is cheaper than the alternative, it won't catch on (good luck legislating a severe carbon diet).

Posted by Brad Arnold on 29 Jun 2010

A source is only as clean as it is renewable. Sure there are some promises to natural gas but at the end of the day in order for it to meet the scale we need we will be using up the gas quicker than it is replenished, the same problem as our current oil crisis. We need to think of clean energy sources that are also renewable on the same rate or higher rates than what we take from them. Solar, wind, and hydro are the obvious ones but maybe natural gas and geothermal can be added to that list if a mature stance is taken as to how much we abuse the source.

-California Solar Engineering

Posted by California Solar Engineering on 29 Jun 2010

Little problem ...

Solar panels use a lot of silver. We are currently reaching "peak silver" as well ...


Posted by Mark on 29 Jun 2010

It's all about energy density. Solar and wind take up too much area. You still have to have backup generators for when sun doesn't shine or wind doesn't blow. These generators are much less efficient than dedicated natural gas generators. I would suggest Mr. Botkin read Power Hungry by Robert Bryce.

Posted by Kirk Price on 29 Jun 2010

Perhaps if we give up our silverware and jewelry, give up our clothes driers, live with little/no heating/ac, and carpool when we cannot avoid driving, then we may survive yet.

Posted by bruce ritchie on 30 Jun 2010

Shale gas extraction disrupts lives and endangers the environment and human health. Shale gas wells deplete very rapidly, so to keep the gas flowing they have to drill more and more and more wells, cutting up the landscape. In populated areas, shale gas wells are placed very close to homes and drinking water sources. To get a sense of what this looks like, see the photos at:


I live in Broome County, NY, which overlies the Marcellus Shale. We have been told we can expect about 4,000 shale gas wells in our 700-square-mile county. There are about 200,000 people living here. If they drill here, many of the wells will be very close to drinking water sources and homes. NY law allows gas wells to be drilled just 50 feet from streams and lakes, 100 feet from homes, and 150 feet from public buildings like schools. These wells are major industrial sites, covering multiple acres.

The Marcellus Shale underlies 54,000 square miles in the Northeast. If the U.S. becomes heavily dependent on shale gas, large sections of the country will become industrial zones. Is this really the best the U.S. can do?

Posted by Mary Sweeney on 30 Jun 2010

Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow have got it right in my assessment: (http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2007/10/carbon-crisis/img/stabilization_wedges.pdf).

They have identified some 15 "stabilization wedges" to stabilize the climate and put us on the path to sustainable energy use and production. Transportation represents two of those wedges, if we convert the type of fuel used as well as improve overall efficiency/conservation. Replacing fossil fuels with clean technologies represent several more wedges. Wind and solar are highly viable, particularly on small scales and using decentralized, local production. I know several households that currently produce 50-100 percent of their own energy. From a microeconomic perspective, this is a no-brainer. On a macro-economic scale, just like home-ownership, producing one's own energy is a win-win.

Posted by Ross on 01 Jul 2010

This is a classic example of what happens when intellectuals believe they are qualified to comment on areas outside their expertise. Building on Kirk Price's comment, Mr. Botkin would do well to visit the engineering department at UCSB and get a primer on thermodynamics and energy fundamentals.

Posted by Randy on 02 Jul 2010

Marcellus shale natural gas could participate in a transition away from coal if we could extract it safely and cleanly. Together with a smart and sustainably sourced growing biofuels market (biogas and BTL) as well as wind and solar, we could increase our rate in getting out of the fossil fuel quandary we have today.

However, as is pointed out in the article as in many others,

a) we do not have a mature fracking industry: regulations, practice, safety, insurance disparate and in my opinion insuficient

b) the previous administration exempted the natural gas companies from the Clean Water
Act's mandated chemical disclosure step

c) the actual reserves in question are...well, in question, and...

d) the true costs as well as the prices of solar and wind are dropping dramatically, whereas
conventional fossil fuel recovery face mounting costs and prices.

Posted by Andre Heinz on 05 Jul 2010

British Columbia has shale gas reserves, and it also has Mark Jaccard, former lead IPCC author on policy. Jaccard writes that BC shale gas contains 11 - 12% CO2 which companies extract and vent directly to the atmosphere.

See: http://www.pics.uvic.ca/assets/pdf/publications/Shale%20Gas%20and%20Climate%20Targets.pdf

and his newspaper article: http://www.vancouversun.com/technology/dishonesty+climate+change/3331188/story.html

If a particular shale gas deposit has a CO2 content that ends up being vented to the atmosphere, this, combined with methane leakage as the gas is produced, transported and consumed, could well mean that using that shale gas could have greater climate impact than using coal.

The Marcellus Shale is "highly radioactive" - a similar formation in Sweden was mined for uranium until richer ores were discovered. Normal natural gas exposes users to 15 - 90 times more radioactivity than they would be exposed to if they lived next door to a nuclear reactor, because radon is in the gas and survives the flames of a cookstove to enter room air.

Marcellus gas must be much more radioactive but I haven't found anyone who has measured it. Because no one cares about radioactivity in fossil fuels (a coal station causes 100 times the radioactivity to enter the environment than a nuclear station, for the same amount of electricity produced) unless it can be pinned on the nuclear industry, this issue hasn't been explored very much. "Marcellus Shale Too Hot to Handle" is one media report.

Posted by David Lewis on 04 Aug 2010

I just read in at least 4 areas, including the main article where costs for solar are dropping
dramatically. HUH? Don't see it. If you are talking subsidized cost, then perhaps. Overall,
solar is still 500% to 700% more expensive than conventional Grid Electricity. Solar will not fly
unless the price is affordable. The Electric Grid poses a National Security and economic risk to
this country (see www.nogridusa.org). Natural Gas is a great transition fuel to the next big
thing. Cars & Trucks need to get electric, electric plug-in hybrid or natural gas fired and soon. We can not wait another decade to actually do something about energy costs and energy security.

Posted by Kent Johnson on 14 Aug 2010

Comments have been closed on this feature.
daniel b. botkinABOUT THE AUTHOR
Daniel B. Botkin is professor emeritus of the University of California, Santa Barbara. A pioneer in developing a global approach in ecology, he has done field research worldwide on endangered species, from elephants in Africa to salmon in the Pacific Northwest. He also has developed computer models used worldwide, including forecasting possible effects of global warming on forests and endangered species. He is the author of 15 books, including Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the 21st Century. His latest book is Powering the Future: A Scientist’s Guide to Energy Independence.



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