Natural gas, despite its GHG emissions and extractive nature, looks pretty good compared to coal. Thought leaders across a range of the environmental spectrum are agreeing that we should rely on natural gas to move us away from coal as we transition to widespread renewables.

Dan Reicher, Executive Director, Steyer-Taylor Center on Energy Policy and Finance, Stanford University, said, "Globally, there are immense supplies of natural gas, both conventional and unconventional," at the Cleanedge VC event last week. By unconventional, Reicher means shale gas.

Natural gas won some positive spin in Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday night. "Some folks want wind andsolar Others want nuclear, clean coal, and natural gas," Obama said. "To meet this goal, we will need them all, and I urge Democrats and Republicans to work together to make it happen."

As reported by Michael Kanellos, "Natural gas is only kind of clean. Gas plants emit half of the emissions of coal plants, but far more than solar or wind. [...]The gas industry has been clamoring to get included in a 'clean' energy standard for the last two years.  The President's speech gives that the green light."  

Natural gas already provides 21 percent of U.S. electricity right now and the figure will rise to 40 percent by 2035, according to consulting and construction giant Black & Veatch.

In Reicher's words, "We need the combination of natural gas, renewable energy and energy efficiency," adding "We need to build this bridge between natural gas and renewables."

T. Boone Pickens claims that the United States has natural gas reserves that are equivalent to 700 billion barrels of oil and it is his personal crusade to move that ocean of natural gas into the American transportation sector.  He claims to have already spent $62 million on this quest, known as the Pickens Plan.

Bolder words were uttered by Vikram Rao, former CTO, Halliburton and the current Executive Director of RTEC (Research Triangle Energy Consortium). He said that the shale gas supply "is the most important energy event in the U.S. since the discovery of Alaskan oil." Rao saw the shale gas keeping a lid on natural gas prices because of the peculiarities of shale gas extraction.  He claimed that "once you have the lease you can produce gas very quickly -- in 180 days." That turn-around time will keep speculators away and therefore pricing will not spike, according to Rao. He also saw the water transport and contamination issue as solvable. (See below for some notes on the Marcellus Shale and its water issues.)

Andrew Littlefair, President and CEO of Clean Energy Fuels, spoke of his firm's focus on natural gas in transportation. He said that "the low-hanging fruit are the fleet vehicles" such as cabs, buses, and garbage trucks. He added that "natural gas can compete with gasoline, no problem. It was a compelling environmental play, but now it's an economic play."  According to the CEO, there are 225 LNG and CNG stations in 25 states and "a lot of fleets are looking at this."
 
Carl Pope, Chairman of The Sierra Club, spoke of coal and how utilities have powerful incentives to hold on to coal. Pope said, "Renewables and gas are fighting for table scraps while we should go after coal."  He urged, "Make sure that the Public Utility Commissions do not allow irrational investments in upgrading 50-year-old coal fired power plants."

Pope suggested, "Run the railroads on natural gas, not diesel, [...] run fleet vehicles on natural gas," and "Replace peakers with fuel cells."  He asked, "Can we power locomotives with fuel cells or natural gas?"
 
Pope finished his remarks by asking us to "Look at the system differently."  He said that the biggest missing ingredient is that there is no institution where consumers and utilities can communicate. "We need to create a place where that conversation can happen."

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Extracting shale gas entails a drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," which involves blasting through rock with a mix of water, sand and a chemical cocktail used to split the shale formation and free the trapped gas.

According to The Oil Drum, water needed for hydraulic fracturing and disposal of produced load water are becoming serious obstacles for Marcellus development. The problem with water sourcing is not availability but getting water management plans approved for the high volume withdrawals (drilling requires about 100,000 gallons and completions use another 3 million to 4 million gallons). There are few waste treatment plants and the cost of transporting disposal water from the well may add $250,000 to the cost (Tudor, Pickering and Holt, 2009). Also, there is widespread belief that hydraulic fracturing will contaminate aquifers and that this is a risk that cannot be tolerated.

Here's an except from a USGS document entitled, "Water Resources and Natural Gas Production from the Marcellus Shale."

The Marcellus Shale is a sedimentary rock formation deposited over 350 million years ago in a shallow inland sea located in the eastern United States where the present-day Appalachian Mountains now stand (de Witt and others, 1993). This shale contains significant quantities of natural gas. New developments in drilling technology, along with higher wellhead prices, have made the Marcellus Shale an important natural gas resource.

The Marcellus Shale extends from southern New York across Pennsylvania, and into western Maryland, West Virginia, and eastern Ohio (fig. 1). The production of commercial quantities of gas from this shale requires large volumes of water to drill and hydraulically fracture the rock. This water must be recovered from the well and disposed of before the gas can flow. Concerns about the availability of water supplies needed for gas production, and questions about wastewater disposal have been raised by water-resource agencies and citizens throughout the Marcellus Shale gas development region. This Fact Sheet explains the basics of Marcellus Shale gas production, with the intent of helping the reader better understand the framework of the water-resource questions and concerns....

The Marcellus shale deposit that straddles the U.S.-Canadian border produced 200 million cubic feet a day in July 2008. Two years later, 1.4 billion cubic feet a day were being pumped out. Gulf Coast shale deposits will generate 15 billion cubic feet a day in 2030.