100 Years of Natural Gas?
Thanks to the wonders of modern fracking, we are now blessed with 100 years of natural gas from shale rock, right? Wrong. If we follow the logic that leads to the claim of 100 years of natural gas, we actually have only 23 years of shale gas.
It’s understandable that people are conflating the estimated supply of natural gas with that of shale gas. A few weeks ago, in his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama stated that “we have a supply of natural gas that can last America for nearly 100 years,” and then he quickly pivoted (to land a jab), saying “and by the way, it was public research dollars, over the past 30 years, that helped develop the technologies to extract all this natural gas from shale rock.”
But the claim that the U.S. has 100 years of natural gas doesn’t just assume drilling and fracking for shale gas, tight sands gas and coalbed methane anywhere and everywhere it can be found. It also assumes unrestricted drilling and fracking throughout Alaska, up and down the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, and all along the Gulf coast. Florida? New Jersey? California? Wouldn’t that do wonders for your billion-dollar coastal economies?
Maybe that’s why the oil and gas industry is not exactly advertising the details behind its favorite talking point.
Here are the details that underlie the President’s claim of “nearly 100 years”: It derives from taking the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s estimate of 2,214 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of technically recoverable natural gas and assuming that the rate of natural gas consumption stays the same as it was in 2010. So, if we continue consuming 24 Tcf per year, as we did in 2010, then the estimated supply would last about 92 years (2,214 divided by 24 equals 92.25).
But, according to the EIA, shale gas makes up only a quarter of the estimated technically recoverable natural gas. Specifically, the U.S. has 60 Tcf in “proved” shale gas reserves and 482 Tcf in “unproved” reserves (see slide 10 here). It’s worth highlighting how uncertain unproved reserves are: the estimate of 482 Tcf is 42 percent less than the estimate the U.S. used last year (see p. 9 here). Nonetheless, if we take the current total estimate of 542 Tcf in proved and unproved shale gas reserves, and if we continue to consume natural gas at the 2010 rate, then we can expect there to be about 22.6 years of shale gas (542 divided by 24 equals 22.58).
Where is the rest of the gas? More precisely, if we exclude the estimated 542 Tcf of shale gas, where is the remaining 1,672 Tcf of technically recoverable natural gas?
Well, 1,460 Tcf of the 2,214 Tcf is unproved reserves of natural gas other than shale gas (see slide 10 here). According to the National Petroleum Council (see p. 134 here), the 1,460 Tcf estimate likely includes about 300 Tcf believed to be recoverable in Alaska and about 400 Tcf believed to be recoverable from the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf – the entire Outer Continental Shelf!!
This means that selling the “100 years of natural gas claim” represents more than just selling the controversial practice of modern drilling and fracking for shale gas. It is also selling oil and gas drilling all along the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, and throughout Alaska.
And yet there is good reason to believe the “100 year” claim is a bit rosy. It ignores the push to export shale gas, the push to use it to fuel more power plants (see Ch. 4 here), and the Pickens’ Plan to increase the use of natural gas as a transportation fuel. If these policies go through and more demand for natural gas is created, then we’ll burn up our supply of it even faster.
And then what? That is a major question fueling opposition to fracking.
We’ll be stuck with a legacy of rural and coastal pollution from fracking that risks our vital natural resources. Adding insult to injury, we’ll likely also have brought the costs and damages of global climate change on ourselves sooner (see Howarth, Wigley, Petron or the Tyndall Centre), while at the same time delayed the necessary transition to a low-carbon economy, not built a bridge to it.
In sum, we’ll have allowed industry profits to be put ahead of the public good.