America is running out of natural gas. Prices will soar, making imported liquefied natural gas (LNG) and T Boone Pickens’ wind farm plan practical, affordable and inevitable. That was then.
Barely two years later, America (and the world) are tapping vast, previously undreamed-of energy riches – as drillers discover how to produce gas from shale, coal and tight sandstone formations, at reasonable cost. They do it by pumping a water, sand and proprietary chemical mixture into rocks under very high pressure, fracturing or “fracking” the formations, and keeping the cracks open, to yield trapped methane.
Within a year, US recoverable shale gas reserves alone rose from 340 trillion cubic feet to 823 tcf, the Energy Department estimates. That’s 36 years’ worth, based on what the USA currently consumes from all gas sources, or the equivalent of 74 years’ of current annual US oil production. The reserves span the continent, from Barnett shale in Texas to Marcellus shale in Eastern and Mid-Atlantic states – to large deposits in western Canada, Colorado, North Dakota, Montana and other states (and around the world).
Instead of importing gas, the United States could become an exporter. The gas can move seamlessly into existing pipeline systems, to fuel homes, factories and electrical generators, serve as a petrochemical feedstock, and replace oil in many applications. States, private citizens and the federal government could reap billions in lease bonuses, rents, royalties and taxes. Millions of high-paying jobs could be “created or saved.” Plentiful gas can also provide essential backup power for wind turbines.
Production of this much gas would reduce oil price shocks and dependence on oil imports from the likes of Gadhafi and Chavez, while lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Talk about a game changer!
What’s not to like? Plenty, it turns out. The bountiful new supplies make environmentalist dogmas passé: the end of the hydrocarbon era, America as an energy pauper, immutable Club of Rome doctrines of sustainability and imminent resource depletion, the Pickens’ Plan and forests of wind turbines.
What to do? Environmentalists voiced alarm. HBO aired “Gasland,” a slick propaganda film about alleged impacts of fracking on groundwater. Its claims have been roundly debunked (for instance, methane igniting at a water faucet came from a gas deposit encountered by the homeowner’s water well – not from a fracking operation). A politically motivated Oscar was predicted, but didn’t happen.
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