Is exporting natural gas misguided?

June 5, 2013

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

The rapid escalation of natural gas fracking has driven its price below the cost of production, leaving a surplus advocates want to ship into the global marketplace. The desire to export has been embraced by President Barack Obama. He has indicated that by 2020, the United States could be a net gas exporter.

In his article, “The Obama administration’s natural gas policy is tragically misguided,” Chris Martenson sees exporting natural gas as counterproductive and shortsighted, as it could undermine domestic manufacturing and harm future generations.

For natural gas to reach global markets, it first has to be compressed and refrigerated down to negative 260 degrees Fahrenheit to be liquefied and shipped. Energy consumed in the gasification process amounts to about 25 percent of the energy in the natural gas. While economically profitable for some interests, from the perspective of the well-being of the country, it is a wasteful use of energy.

The increased use of natural gas is characterized as a bridge fuel to a low-carbon future. U.S. carbon emissions have fallen dramatically in recent years because of a combination of factors. Outsourcing, the economic recession and natural gas displacing coal-powered electric generation have lowered carbon emissions to their lowest level since 1994.

Martenson reports that some European utilities have been forced to mothball modern gas-fired electric generating stations because of the low cost of importing excess coal displaced from energy markets in the United States. U.S. coal exports to Europe in 2012 were up 23 percent. The imports both increase global carbon emissions and shift the emissions from the United States to Europe.

Martensen also challenges the concept of the U.S. having a 100-year supply of natural gas. The important consideration is that 100-year supply projection was based on existing consumption rates. It ignores the possibility of rising consumption rates. It is unlikely that all the natural gas will be extractable. Assuming 75 percent can be economically recovered with increasing rates of consumption, the supply may only last fewer than 30 years.

If all 16 pending requests to build Liquid Natural Gas facilities are approved by the Department of Energy, the export demand could reach 30 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day. If shipments reach that level, Martenson estimates natural gas supplies would only last 19 years.

Martenson believes we should retain all our natural gas supplies for U.S. use and use them to build a resilient energy infrastructure. A promising approach involves energy efficiency, increased use of renewable energy and a reduction in fossil fuel use.

Reducing the consumption of fossil fuels is sought as a means to limit the rise in carbon dioxide emissions so global temperature increases stay below a 2 degrees Celsius rise in temperature from pre-industrial levels. With that as a goal, we can ill afford to burn the world’s existing reserves of fossil fuels.

Using our natural gas to power combustion turbines and fuel cells is very efficient and would help lower carbon emissions. The units can also serve as a good backup source to level the variable output of renewable energy sources.

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. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the June 5-11, 2013, issue

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