Is shale gas being oversold?

December 9, 2009

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl

President and Vice President

Illinois Renewable Energy Association

The MIT Technology Review featured an article proclaiming “Natural gas changes the energy map.” The article focuses on the Marcellus shale, a 350-million-year-old deposit underlying parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, West Virginia, Maryland and Kentucky. It is considered the largest gas shale deposit in the United States. When added to other sources of natural gas within the country, it is estimated that we have a 90-year supply at current rates of consumption.

The gas would help meet growing energy needs of the East Coast, displace oil for heating, and provide jobs in the area. Its presence in Michigan could provide a needed economic stimulus.

Although shale gas is not a new discovery, its economic development awaited the arrival of new technologies. A well is drilled vertically into the shale, then travels horizontally along the formation to create a larger area from which to collect the gas. A mixture of water, sand and additives is forced into the well at a high pressure, creating multiple fractures, freeing more gas to collect in it.

The most productive shale gas source today is the Barnett formation in Texas, which is roughly one-tenth the size of the Marcellus formation. If natural gas supplies are as abundant as predicted, they would enhance U.S. energy security and reduce emissions associated with coal consumption.

Some energy experts believe estimates are far too optimistic, and massive development based on them could produce major adverse economic and environmental consequences. Art Berman, a former columnist for World Oil magazine, points out that the mature Barnett shale field wells in Texas deplete dramatically within the first year of production, and that less than one-third of the drilled wells produce enough gas to cover the cost of developing them. While operators expect a well life of 30 or more years, Berman reports an average of 7.5 years.

The water demands and chemicals used in releasing gas from shale can damage both ground and surface waters, raising environmental concerns about the wisdom of extensive development of the resource. Additionally, a major increase in gas consumption extends the destruction caused by our prolific consumption of energy.

Some of the hype for shale gas is seen as an attempt to get Congress to increase the role of natural gas in the new energy bills under discussion. It is portrayed as a bridge fuel to a renewable energy future. It would replace coal in electrical generation, provide supplemental power when wind generators are not producing and serve as a transportation fuel.

Natural gas is cleaner burning than coal or oil, but by relying on it, we would replace dependence on one fossil fuel with another. If natural gas becomes the fuel of choice, it could undermine our commitment to energy efficiency and renewable energy and leave us ill-prepared to cope with its eventual decline. Prudence suggests we keep shale gas on the back burner until we accumulate more accurate data about the industry’s impact.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. The Vogls and the IREA are members of the Environmental Hall of Fame. Dr. Robert Vogl is vice president of Freedom Field, and Dr. Sonia Vogl is a member of Freedom Field’s Executive Committee. The Vogls consult on energy efficiency, renewable energy and green building. They have 3.2 kW of PV and a 1 kW wind generator at their home. Forty acres of their 180-acre home farm are in ecological restorations. They are active in preserving natural areas and are retired professors from Northern Illinois University. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the Dec. 9-15, 2009 issue

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