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Gas Is Needed in Foreign Policy and To Stabilize the U.S. Grid

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Llewellyn King's picture
Executive Producer White House Media, LLC

Llewellyn King is the creator, executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle,” a weekly news and public affairs program, airing nationwide on PBS and public, educational and government...

  • Member since 2018
  • 71 items added with 74,294 views
  • Feb 26, 2022
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Natural gas has been getting short shrift in the U.S. energy debate. It deserves better. Much better.

It has been battered by environmentalists who oppose exploration and the pipelines to get it to market. They are attempting to evict natural gas and force utilities into reliance on intermittent renewables.

But events in Europe may cause a rethink about natural gas, both as a transition fuel in the United States and a foreign policy tool.

Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, natural gas was in short supply in Europe after a summer of wind drought caused European utilities to scramble for natural gas – prices went up 400 percent. Russia added to the crisis by reducing volumes flowing through the Ukrainian system that serves much of Europe.

Fear of Russian weaponization of natural gas has been an ever-present reality. Now Europe trembles, especially Germany, which has just closed its last three nuclear plants and has relied on renewables and natural gas from Russia.

In the United States, the danger is that natural gas may be pushed aside prematurely in favor of renewables, leaving the electric grid destabilized and vulnerable to severe weather. The grid is less stable today than it was 20 years ago, according to experts I speak to regularly. Environmental mandates are taking a toll, and natural gas is being pushed out before there are stable renewables and utility-scale storage.

A new assessment of natural gas is needed. Its value to the United States to counter Russia now and in the future isn’t in doubt. The United States is the world’s largest natural gas producer, and liquefied natural gas is needed as a diplomatic tool.

Domestically, though, it needs a defined place in the electricity evolution. It is an option too valuable to be elbowed out by well-meaning but not well-informed arguments.

In electricity production, natural gas is the least polluting of the three fossil fuels. It emits half the carbon dioxide of coal and heavy oil used to make electricity. Also, it doesn’t have the other pollutants which make coal so devastating to the environment. Progress is being made countering methane leaks, a serious problem.

When burned in a combined-cycle plant, favored by utilities for more than just peaking, natural gas reaches an efficiency of around 64 percent. That is a remarkably high rate of fuel to electricity. Coal-fired plants have an efficiency of about 40 percent.

Back in the 1970s, a combination of price controls and regulation served to dry up the amount of natural gas coming to market. The newly formed Department of Energy added to the sense of an end by declaring that gas was “a depleted resource.” The conventional wisdom was that it was too precious for most uses and especially for making electricity.

In 1978, Congress passed the Power Plant and Industrial Fuel Use Act. It was a prohibiting measure and went after what Congress thought were wasteful uses of natural gas such as ornamental flames and pilot lights in gas stoves. And it prohibited the burning of natural gas to make electricity.

Known simply as the “Fuel Use Act,” it was draconian. There was even a debate about whether the Eternal Flame at Arlington National Cemetery would have to be extinguished.

In 1985, deregulation began to increase the natural gas supply and two years later, the Fuel Use Act was repealed.

But the big break, the great game-changer, was fracking — first used in the late 1980s. It was developed by George Mitchell and his Mitchell Energy company with help from the DOE. Together with horizontal drilling, it would change everything quickly.

Natural gas became cheap and plentiful and the utilities, using turbines developed from aircraft jet engines, began to switch off coal and to question the cost of building nuclear plants. A new dawn had broken.

Now that happy day is in the past and utilities must make the case for gas turbine capacity to back up their alternative energy operations and as an efficient form of energy storage. Also, if hydrogen is to be the fuel of the future, it will need to use the natural gas infrastructure.

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Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Feb 26, 2022

Llew.. as you probably already know peak NG was hit in the USA in 2004. The only reason we have any is from Fracking for Oil. We still subsidies NG. It pollutes. It is a lower. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 27, 2022

Jim, wrong on so many levels:

  • "Nationally, fracking produces two-thirds (67 percent) of the natural gas in the United States, according to the US Energy Information Administration, and approximately 50 percent of the nation’s oil.
  • Or, another way of looking at it: natural gas producers frack more than 90 percent of the gas wells in the United States. (The share of wells that are fracked is larger than the share of gas that is produced by fracking because some conventional (nonfracked) wells produce more fuel than the wells that require fracking.)
  • According to Natural Resources Canada, about 50 percent of Canadian gas was derived from fracking in 2014, and the figure is expected to increase to 80 percent by 2035."

 

"....as you probably already know peak NG was hit in the USA in 2004."

What's your source for this information...a papal decree from the Church of Renewables? The American Petroleum Institute? The U.S. Energy Information Administration says you're wrong by a factor of 13:
 

Your "renewable" sources of electricity are responsible for continuing dependence on gas - because they aren't always available. And people need a supply of reliable electricity, something your personal ideology seems to prevent you from understanding. Get over it.

"It is a lower."

And if you're going to contribute to Energy Central, please try to write in complete sentences. Thank you.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Feb 28, 2022

The US (and Canada) did indeed hit a peak in gas production sometime around 2004. I don't have references, offhand, though I'm sure they could be found. It was at a time when The Oil Drum was an active website. I followed it regularly. Around the time of peak gas production, prices had climbed into the $6+ range and looked to be heading higher. Chemical and fertilizer plants were closing down and moving to offshore locations where gas was still available at lower prices.

Then the fracking revolution came along and turned the situation around. Along with improved horizontal drilling technology, fracking made it feasible to tap the extensive oil and gas bearing shale formations below most conventional oil fields. But shale has very low permeability. Fracking creates a network of cracks through which oil and gas can travel to reach the production well, but what's produced comes from a thin layer of shale adjacent to the newly opened cracks. Production is high for the first few months, and then rapidly declines. So new wells, or new extensions of existing wells, must constantly be opened. Operators have made amazing progress in their abilities to do that, but at its heart, fracking is a costly and unsustainable way to produce oil and gas. Within a decade, I expect to see US production of oil and gas down by at least half.

There is the possibility for another revolution in gas production, however. There are deep sedimentary formations running along the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to south Texas. The formations hold hot pressurized brine with high contents of dissolved methane. The total size of the gas resource there dwarfs the total of all other gas reserves in the US. It isn't economically feasible to tap these formations for gas alone. They're too deep and the gas content is too diffuse. However, if they're developed as "triple play" geothermal resources, there's a good chance that they could be economical.

Deep extraction wells would allow hot pressurized brine to ascend to the surface, generating combined hydroelectric and geothermal power while releasing methane. Then high pressure CO2 would be injected into the cooled brine, and the carbonated brine sent back down to the formation. Little or no pumping energy would be required, since the descending column of cool carbonated brine would be substantially denser than the ascending column of hot methane-saturated brine. It would be a closed convection loop for carbon sequestration, power generation, and methane production.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Feb 28, 2022

A new assessment of natural gas is needed. Its value to the United States to counter Russia now and in the future isn’t in doubt. The United States is the world’s largest natural gas producer, and liquefied natural gas is needed as a diplomatic tool.

Is this short-sighted though? Should we be looking at the next big geopolitical energy resources in lithium, nickel, etc.? 

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Mar 4, 2022

Lithium won't and nickel is unlikely to become a significant geopolitical energy resource. Adeauate reserves are widely distributed, and I can't see demand ramping up faster than supply can adjust for it.

What could become geopolitical resources are fresh water and productive farmland. Rising temperatures, melting glaciers, changing precipitation patterns, and aquifer depletion threaten to turn vast swaths of formerly productive farmland into desert. If we're collectively too stupid to develop constructive solutions, we could see nasty water and climate refugee wars in our future.

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