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Natural Gas: “False Friend” of Energy Consumers, Policymakers and the Environment August 6, 2010

Posted by Michael Hoexter in Climate Policy, Efficiency/Conservation, Energy Policy, Fossil Fuel Depletion.

A drilling fluid waste pond for a natural gas drilling operation in Pennsylvania. The components of this fluid are not regulated by the EPA but there are reported to be as many as 300 components at least 65 of them are considered to be hazardous. (Photo: PA Forest Coalition)

While coal is considered the dirtiest fuel and also, because of relatively plentiful supply in the US, China and India, a major climate threat, natural gas has skated by the climate and energy activist community and energy regulators on a combination of clever marketing, dated scientific results, ubiquity, low emissions at combustion and the endemic “lesser-evil-ism” found in Big Green organizations that cluster around Washington.  The major oil disaster in the Gulf has turned many of our attentions, including my own, to the problem of oil dependence and extraction.  However, the misery/challenge doesn’t end there: natural gas is not a crutch that we can rely on to get us to the post-fossil fuel age.

We now have a (weak) energy bill in front of the US Senate which favors natural gas vehicles over electric vehicles, the latter being the future transportation option with an actual future.  The choice in supposedly responsible circles has been redefined as a choice between fossil fuels or methods of extraction of these fuels, with natural gas operating as the default choice.

Unfortunately, natural gas advocacy has “breached the fortress” (if there ever was one) of the climate and energy community.  As just one example, T. Boone Pickens has used his folksy charm and deep pockets to push his new business venture that claims to get America off “foreign oil” by switching heavy trucking and other vehicles to (compressed) natural gas fuel.  Pickens, a Bush supporter in 2000 and 2004, has benefited from the pairing of wind energy with natural gas in his Pickens Plan, a combination which has gained him entree to influence in the new administration.

Natural gas appears as a compromise to those who see in readiness-to-compromise a virtue, a sign of maturity and responsibility.   Of course the desire of some commentators and politicians to appear reasonable or realistic by befriending parts of the fossil fuel industry does not change geophysical reality or create, out of wishful thinking, a solid fossil fuel ally in the fight against climate chaos.  It would be nice, for the sake of appearances, politics, and the scope of the technological challenge to have a fairly plentiful “bridge fuel” to the zero-carbon future.  It would be nice if we didn’t have to remake our energy industry almost entirely.  But natural gas, unfortunately, is failing in that role for a number of important reasons.

What are False Friends For?

I am not a big fan of anthropomorphizing inanimate objects or institutions because reality is often more complicated than these metaphors let on.  However our relationship with natural gas is so complex that using the analogy of a human “friend” is helpful to draw out some of the dynamics and dimensions of our natural gas dependence.

False friends are a part of life but you cannot rely on them in the clinch; that’s why they are “false”.  Though we don’t ordinarily think of ourselves in this way, many of us play or have played the role of a false friend to get by in social situations, or at least we have pretended to be friendlier with people than we actually are.  False friends are commonplace in large group settings or hierarchical organizations where there is substantial competition.  Most people do not have the luxury of entirely banning this type of friend from their circle of acquaintance or never-ever faking friendship with others.  The impact of having false friends can range from no more than the need to exchange minor pleasantries with them to substantial personal loss if you come to rely on them “in a foxhole”.   Very occasionally false friends turn out to be sociopaths, people who have no more conscience than hardened criminals, which means that they can be the actual cause of the damage to you or your loved ones.

In applying characteristics of these people to our use of natural gas, you can judge for yourself whether natural gas and the natural gas industry qualifies as a “false friend” and if so which type of false friend is it:  indifferent and ordinarily self-interested or sociopathic?

1.  Natural Gas Has a Misleading “Appearance” in Terms of Emissions and Environmental Impact

Natural gas has been marketed as a cleaner fuel and, yes at the point of combustion it is cleaner than coal or gasoline both in terms of “criteria pollutants” (sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, mercury) and in terms of carbon dioxide.  However these statistics are based on conventional natural gas that historically, because of pressure in large underground reservoirs, has been easily extracted from wells.  The “easy gas” is quickly becoming a thing of the past.

In this still from the documentary, Gasland, a Colorado man lights water from his home faucet on fire with a cigarette lighter. (Source: Josh Fox)

Almost all of the future growth in natural gas supply as well as replacement for the depletion of existing wells will come from unconventional sources like the “tight gas” that is extracted from small (“tight”) pockets in formations like the Marcellus Shale in the Northeastern US.  As is chronicled in the new HBO special “Gasland” directed by Josh Fox, the process of “high volume, slick water hydraulic fracturing” or “hydrofracking” which breaks up these pockets in the shale has numerous environmental and health effects that are in themselves reasons to halt or at least heavily regulate this industry. Trucked into the drilling site, one to seven million gallons of water laced with a cocktail of chemicals is used as a hammer to open up pockets of gas trapped in the shale formation.  This process is repeated multiple times during the life of the well, to re-fracture the shale bedrock and release more gas.

According to Fox’s research, over 1000 truck trips are involved in each drilling and fracking episode to transport water, chemicals and equipment, with the potential for as many as 18 re-frackings per well, each involving more than 600 truckloads. Unsurprisingly the fracking chemicals and gas end up in drinking water, as in one scene, a man lights up his tap water using a cigarette lighter.   Josh Fox, the director of Gasland, has issued a call to action to support a moratorium on hydrofracking in New York State and on a national level the removal of the exemption from the Clean Water Act and other environmental regulations for the natural gas industry.  These calls are based purely on the non-greenhouse gas environmental effects of hydrofracking.

Given the type of drilling, the number of wells, the abovementioned leakage into the water-table, the number of truck trips involved, the energy required to pump the fracking fluid, and the volatility of methane (largest constituent of natural gas), you would think that unconventional natural gas would also have significantly higher total carbon emissions than conventional natural gas.  Looking at the potential greenhouse gas emissions from hydrofracking and in consideration of the 20-50 fold higher warming potential of methane relative to carbon dioxide, Robert Howarth of Cornell estimates conservatively that shale gas extraction and combustion has equivalent lifetime emissions to mountaintop removal coal mining and combustion which is more than twice that of conventional natural gas.  Given the energy intensive nature of the fracking process, it wouldn’t surprise me if actual measurements of lifetime emissions per unit useful energy were higher than coal.

So the natural gas industry as well as lazy analysts of the environmental impacts of natural gas take the more optimistic figures from conventional gas and with it, try to sell America and others on the benefits of natural gas that increasingly is coming from sources that have many times the overall negative environmental impact of the “traditional” stuff.  In addition, the energy yield from these sources is less, as more energy is expended per unit energy recovered: this will result eventually in higher prices as well.

2.  Natural Gas Has “Fooled Your Friends”

As mentioned above natural gas has been given a pass by the climate and energy community.  Renewable energy advocate and politically-connected blogger Joe Romm here sings the praises of natural gas conversions of coal fired power plants.  Union of Concerned Scientists pretty much endorses natural gas use especially in fuel cells.   Here the Environmental Defense Fund, an organization that is financed by many large scale polluters, has a commissioned a study that looks at reducing emissions from shale gas exploration as a technical problem for drillers not a problem of large-scale energy and environmental policy. Fuel cell manufacturers, like Bloom Energy, make fuel cells that theoretically could use biogas but in practice will be using natural gas; organizations have bought fuel cells as if they are a substantial environmental improvement over grid electricity meanwhile increasing their and our dependence on natural gas. All of the relevant climate measurement agencies and nonprofits have been making do with old emissions statistics about natural gas, assuming that this natural gas is simply captured at the wellhead after routine old-style exploration and drilling.  Howarth’s estimate is one of the first attempts to analyze the global warming potential of unconventional natural gas, especially its lifecycle emissions.  Why aren’t more scientists and advocacy organizations updating their emissions measurement estimates, environmental impact analyses, and policy recommendations?

3. Natural Gas Will Leave You in the Lurch

This is a high production/high demand scenario from the 2009 report of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America. In this fairly optimistic scenario, note the increasing contribution of unconventional natural gas. If unconventional sources are not as plentiful as projected or need to be curtailed due to environmental damage, supply will fall behind demand. (Source: INGAA)

One thing about false friends is that they will abandon you at important times in your life not necessarily out of malice but simply out of disinterest.  Every thinking person who makes energy policy, recommends procurement decisions, or orders natural gas service to a residence should know that natural gas could “leave us in the lurch” fairly quickly or at least become much more expensive.  Gas wells deplete rapidly and the US conventional gas production is in terminal decline, as Exxon CEO Lee Raymond said in 2005.  What remains is unconventional gas production like shale gas with its climate-altering and water-table-poisoning ways, as well as deepwater adventures like the recent BP disaster in the Gulf.  Conservative estimates of shale gas put the supply at 7 years, far below the 100-year number pushed by the industry.  It is remarkable how many assets with high fuel input requirements are being built now that depend on natural gas as their main fuel. It is almost as if regulators, the gas industry, and a few advocates are trying to create at some point in the not too distant future a huge seller’s market for natural gas or opportunities for energy traders to “enjoy” the volatility of the future natural gas market.

4.  Questioning NG Supply Induces Paranoia:  Natural Gas Use is Everywhere

Depending too much on false friends or thinking too much about them can lead to an anxiety state.  Many of us have bought or designed homes that are crucially dependent on natural gas service.  A vast majority of restaurants could not function without natural gas.  With the decline of wood-burning, natural gas has come to replace our, perhaps genetically-rooted, attraction to flames in both useful and decorative functions.  Many, “high efficiency” boilers for industrial and commercial heat applications depend on natural gas.  Natural gas is used in the chemical and fertilizer industries as a raw material.  Fast-ramping “peaker” electrical generation plants throughout the world are almost exclusively natural gas fired.    Larger combined cycle gas-fired plants are considered the “state of the art” in electrical generation.   Combined heat and power applications supported by some incentive schemes and counted as “renewable” in some renewable energy requirements are critically dependent on natural gas.  Fuel cells for the most part are fueled by natural gas.

If natural gas is assumed to be cheap, environmentally benign, and plentiful, installing a solar thermal water heating system is an act of conscience. If natural gas is recognized as becoming scarcer, more expensive, and environmentally harmful, solar thermal arrays become a necessity (Photo: Vaillant Solar Systems)

Some natural gas could be replaced by biogas but there is, at least intuitively, not nearly enough strategically located fermenting or decaying biota to replace the energy flow from fossil natural gas as we now consume it, the product of millions of years of biomass growth processed by geological forces over millions of years.  While in developed consumer societies our consumption is dependent on a lot of biomass via food and fiber products, it would be difficult to find enough of the biomass waste from the production of those products to ferment into biogas and substitute for the heat energy of the natural gas that each of us relies upon to cook, heat water, power lights, and use in industry.   Collecting biomass for this purpose is also an energy intensive process.

5. Banishing Natural Gas from Our Lives Today or Tomorrow Is A Near Impossibility

Because false friends are difficult to avoid, many of us can’t decide today or tomorrow to only deal with people who have our best interests at heart.  As natural gas is currently ubiquitous and has gotten a pass by regulators and parts of the climate action community, it is going to be a tough slog to re-design buildings, lifestyles, and industrial processes so that natural gas usage is reduced or eliminated within the next decades.  This doesn’t mean that plans can’t be made now to radically reduce natural gas use but this would require a new orientation towards energy and towards energy planning.

Steps out of the Natural Gas “Relationship”

Because natural gas has so ingrained itself into our lives yet, according to this analysis, remains a “false friend”, it will take a good deal of work to “get out of the relationship”.   Natural gas in the US is currently used for electricity generation (33.0% of end use), in industry (29.4% of end use), in residences (22.7% of end use), commercial buildings (14.8% of end use) and less than .001% for vehicle fuel.

To simply call for a moratorium on the most egregious practices of the natural gas industry is not going to solve the problem of our natural gas dependence, the primary driver of the ever riskier and dirtier search for fossil fuels:  a comprehensive strategy is required.

A)    Invest in technologies that reduce natural gas use substantially: –  The science and art of replacing fossil fuel assets is still in the early stages of its development and the replacement of coal has been one of the main priorities of the climate action movement.  However, I think I have made a strong argument here that an increasing fraction of natural gas used in North America and other areas of the world, has global warming impacts equivalent to the combustion of coal.  Furthermore, this natural gas has very high local and regional environmental impacts.  Finally this natural gas supply is on a longer time scale fundamentally unreliable, how long a time scale we don’t know.

  1. Continental Renewable Supergrid with Electrical Storage – A big project with many parts, of course, but running out of a critical energy source, irreversibly warming the climate and befouling large portions of the nation’s drinking water are big issues.  Averaging out the intermittent energy from wind and solar over extended area of land can, interconnected by an electric grid, create a fairly even flow of electricity that can replace much of the predictable power that comes from fossil generation, both coal and natural gas.  In addition, with fast-ramping battery or other electrical storage attached to this grid, the function of natural gas peaker plants can be replaced with what will become a much more elegant engineering solution.
  2. Concentrating Solar Thermal Electric Power with Thermal Storage (in dry, sunny areas) – These big plants that require electrical transmission and have local impacts on desert areas but, as stated above, our natural gas dependence is an unfolding environmental disaster.  While CSTEP (CSP) plants require about 1% of their total energy use during operation to come from natural gas or potentially biogas to keep heat transfer fluids and turbines warm, they can directly replace natural gas electrical generation with thermal storage with the remaining 99% of their energy output.  Some CSTEP plants are designed without storage to use natural gas as night-time power generation capacity and this does reduce natural gas use during the day. However this design of plant represents a greater benefit if it were to avoid the construction of a completely natural gas fired combined cycle plant.  Used in the Andasol plants and other plants in Spain and planned for the Solana plant in Arizona, molten salt thermal energy storage adds value to CSTEP plants by enabling them to generate electricity into the evening as well as giving them the ability to schedule their production of electricity, as can natural gas and coal fired power plants.
  3. Solar thermal water heating, space heating and cooling – Rooftop solar thermal collectors are highly efficient means of using solar heat in almost every part of the world to pre-heat or provide tap-ready hot water.  Additionally the solar thermal heat can be stored and used as radiant heat, the major area of projected growth in natural gas use.  Finally, in larger scale installations, the heat from solar collectors can be used for solar cooling by the use of absorption chillers.
  4. Passive House/Building Design – Using incident solar radiation, body heat, and waste heat from appliances in combination with high levels of insulation, intelligent ventilation systems, and air-sealing, space-heating and cooling demand can be lowered in most climates by 80% or more, cutting into both residential and summertime electrical system demand for natural gas.  The Passivhaus standard in Germany has now been met in 20,000 buildings in the European Union, with only a nominal increase in building costs.  In the US, Passivhaus/passive house is starting to grow as are other low or net-zero energy building standards.  While these buildings sometimes use natural gas as a back-up heat source, the standard at some point should turn to all-electric households which will simplify construction and enable buildings to generate no carbon emissions during building operation with all-renewable electricity.
  5. Concentrating solar thermal industrial process heat (in sunny dry climates) –  Industrial process heat, a substantial portion of which is generated by natural gas and in a temperature range of 400C and under, can be supplied in sunny, dry climates by concentrating the sun using a linear Fresnel or parabolic trough collector and generating steam.
  6. Organic agriculture/reduce corn production and other fertilizer-intensive crops – Ammonia-based fertilizer to supplement soil nitrogen is a large contributor to natural gas demand worldwide.  The natural gas is steam-reformed into hydrogen gas which reacts with nitrogen to form ammonia.  Ammonia can be produced using renewable energy but overall demand for ammonia can be reduced greatly by eliminating large portions of the demand for this input.  Corn is overproduced to produce bioethanol, which requires large fossil fuel inputs. A sustainable agricultural system and a sustainable biofuel system (no substitute for electric transportation) would have no fossil fuel inputs.
  7. High-efficiency electric induction cooktopsElectrical induction cooktops are 90% efficient and are considered by many cooks to be a superior technology to 50% efficient natural gas burners.  In comparison to natural gas combustion in the home versus at a combined cycle power plant the emissions would be about equal.  With low-carbon electricity, the induction cooktop has substantially less emissions and “future-proofs” the home.  The decarbonization of the electrical grid is  mandatory, so the installation of induction cooktops should simply function as a driver to continue updating electrical supply.
  8. Distributed generation with local electrical storage –  Distributed solar photovoltaic arrays on rooftops alone can shave some of the peak generation needs in sunny climates where peak loads occur during the middle of the day.  With the addition of local energy storage on the distribution grid, oversized distributed PV arrays can contribute to cutting natural gas demand from peak and load-following generators throughout the day and into the evening.

B)     Phase-out all fossil fuel subsidies over a 5-year period worldwide. Reports now indicate that the fossil fuel industry receives worldwide ten times the subsidies that the renewable energy industry receives (including the unsustainable subsidies for biofuels).

C)     Develop system of rules, performance-based incentives and disincentives plus government direct investment program that facilitates rapid build-out of the above infrastructure. Feed-in tariffs, a performance-based incentive, have proven to be the most aggressive and successful system for incentivizing renewable electricity generation.  Specialized feed-in tariffs could be developed which offer extra incentives towards the development of renewable energy facilities that replace natural gas and coal generation.  Renewable heat generation via biomass burning or solar thermal can also be incentivized using feed-in tariffs with the UK offering a pioneering program of these tariffs set to come into effect in April 2011.  If such tariffs are set to profitably but effectively reduce natural gas use and are accompanied by facilitating local regulations the they will definitely reduce natural gas demand substantially.  Changing building codes to promote or mandate near- and net-zero energy buildings inclusive of the Passive House standard.  One of the pernicious effects of the deficit scare that is currently coursing its way through policy circles, is that it endangers government direct investment in infrastructure that is now needed to secure our energy supply by moving to renewable energy (and some nuclear) and electrify our transportation system.  A carbon tax rather than a cap and trade system would also spur investment in non-carbon energy and energy-efficient assets.

D)    Remove natural gas-fueled Combined Heat and Power and Fuel Cell Applications from designated “Renewable” standards and place them into Energy Efficiency Programs. Currently in some state renewable energy programs, combined heat and power and fuel cell applications are counted as “renewable”.  This misleads as the building of new facilities with these devices powered by natural gas will generally increase natural gas demand.   Luckily some fuel cells and combined heat and power facilities could use biogas as fuel but these would then need to be certified individually as renewable energy facilities according to their fuel mix.

E)     Remove subsidies for corn ethanol and overproduction of corn –  Corn, as noted above, is highly fertilizer intensive and one of the key drivers for the growth of corn production are subsidies and standards that promote the use of corn ethanol. Ethanol refineries use natural gas as process heat.  Corn ethanol is in many estimations worse than petroleum.

F)      Remove Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act exemptions for natural gas drilling to impose the full external costs of environmental remediation on this fuel source and provide legal justification for drilling moratoria.  Gasland director Josh Fox provides links to action items in this area on the Gasland website.

G) Charge the US Department of Energy with developing a post-natural gas energy scenario.

H) Charge the US Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency with a combined research program to estimate biogas potential and scenarios for sustainable bioethanol production without natural gas inputs and irrigation.

I) Remove Incentives for Natural Gas Vehicles — As should be obvious from the above, converting vehicles to natural gas and spurring demand for the gas is a foolish endeavor.   Increasing our dependence  on natural gas means increasing our dependence on unreliable supply and the external costs of natural gas exploration and extraction.

J)  Accelerate Incentives and Investment in Electrifying Transportation — Also, as should be obvious from the above, we should continue our incentives for grid-attached, grid-optional, and battery electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids.  I have a longer list of policy recommendations here in a comprehensive package of measures to deal with the oil crisis.

The Dimensions of the Challenge

To mix metaphors a little, natural gas has functioned as a mental and policy crutch for activists, engineers, and policymakers.  We didn’t have to move immediately to the near zero and zero carbon infrastructure because at least there was natural gas….we thought.  Focusing on coal or focusing on coal and oil was challenging enough.

But, given the twin challenges of environmental degradation (both local and global) and resource depletion, I don’t see any other way other than to choose to build with great rapidity zero and near-zero carbon infrastructure.  Natural gas is not going to disappear from our lives any time soon, but we need to make strategic efforts to reduce our demand for it rapidly to conserve its use for only those vital tasks for which we currently have no feasible substitute.  As I point out above, this list of vital tasks can be reduced substantially with good policy, hard work and prudent investment.