The Global View

7 reasons why the ‘golden age of gas’ is a trap

Let’s get a few potential objections out of the way up front: Yes, natural gas is cleaner than coal. Yes, strategies like hydrofracturing have unlocked large new sources of natural gas we previously weren’t able to tap into. Yes, new developments of natural gas resources in the US have created local economic booms and new jobs.

But the legitimate reasons for enthusiasm have been lost in a wildly overoptimistic storm of dot-com-style hype that claims the new “Golden Age of Natural Gas,” as the International Energy Agency calls it, will bring us energy security, US energy independence and an end to worries about climate change and rising energy prices.

That kind of thinking needs a serious reality check. Without a more careful approach, we could find ourselves in a “golden age of gas” trap for the following reasons:

  1. Labeling natural gas as both “low-carbon” and “sustainable” — neither of which it is (“lower carbon” is not the same as “low carbon”) — automatically gives it top preference over wind, solar and other renewables. Gas, after all, is a mature-technology energy source that does not require millions in R&D spending to fine-tune. Wind and solar have made tremendous progress, and become increasingly affordable, thanks to past R&D investments. Putting them on a level playing field with a fossil fuel at this point risks slamming the brakes on that progress.
  2. Building new natural-gas power plant is a 30-year commitment.  With dependence on natural-gas energy locked in, we will have made ourselves vulnerable to the whims and vagaries of the fossil-fuel industry and natural resource limits. However “vast” our new-found natural-gas “wealth” is, it is not — as wind and solar are — unlimited, and there are many reasons to question the overenthusiastic estimates of natural-gas supply some bandy about.
  3. “Resources” do not equal “reserves.” As energy writer Chris Nelder points out, the much-touted “hundred years of natural gas supply” in the US is based on shaky assumptions. What’s buried underground — “resources” — is not all recoverable … ie, not “reserves” we can count on. For example, the supply the US can most realistically count on, proved reserves plus probable resources, comes to 21 years, not 100.
  4. “Supply” at today’s levels of consumption does not equal “supply” in an expanding natural-gas economy. Using the US as an example again, if new sources of natural gas are used as an argument to build new gas-consuming infrastructure — more natural-gas power plants, more fleets of natural-gas-powered vehicles — we’re going to be using up gas a lot faster than we are today. “Were we to do those things, that 21-year supply could quickly shrink to a 10-year supply,” Nelder writes.
  5. Committing anew to natural gas on an increased scale also leaves us vulnerable to rising energy prices and energy-industry speculation. Natural gas, like oil, is prone to dramatic swings in market prices over time. In fact, it’s been far more volatile than oil, having ping-ponged by a price factor of nearly 15 between 1992 and 2005, from $1.1 per 10 billion British thermal units (mmBtu) to $15.4 per mmBtu. Natural gas might look like our energy savior when it costs just over $2 per mmBtu — as it does today. But how appealing will it be if it bounces back to December 2005 prices of more than $15 per mmBtu?
  6. All the hype also ignores the not-negligible negative impacts on people and the environment. High levels of contamination — including concentrations of radium more than 1500 times federal limits — have been found in wastewater coming from hydrofracturing operations. Some gas-rich locales have so many producing wells that the maps resemble pincushions, with as many as 20 to 25 wells per square mile. (You can search large areas of gas-producing wells at ESER.)
  7. Unconventional natural-gas sources can be developed in socially and environmentally sensitive ways, according to the latest report from the IEA, “Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas.” However, that requires “a continuous drive from governments and industry to improve performance … if public confidence is to be maintained or earned.” From the failure of Copenhagen climate talks to the aggressively anti-environmental stance of large portions of the US right wing to over-the-top anti-climate change campaigns by the Heartland Institute and green-talking corporations that don’t walk the walk, the recent track record from both those players does not inspire confidence.

1 thought on “7 reasons why the ‘golden age of gas’ is a trap”

  1. Annette A. Barry

    Until watershed friendly ways are developed to mitigate the damage that occurs from hydrofracking, as well as the use of humungous volumes of clean water that could be put to other uses, not to mention the importing of specialized professionals who benefit from the opportunity to the detriment of community residents, I say thanks, but no thanks! It is time to go back to the hydrofracking table and develop policy and implementation strategies that are good for the world’s people and the planet. God Bless!

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