Natural gas: Fuel of the future

By Steve Hargreaves, senior writer


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The world seems awash in natural gas.

In the United States, new production from once hard-to-tap shale rock is booming in places like Texas, Louisiana and the Northeast. There are also plans to construct a mammoth gas pipeline through Canada to bring Alaskan North Slope gas to market.

In Australia and Qatar, liquefied natural gas terminals have started supplying fast-growing Asian countries, and more are under construction.

In Africa, rich natural gas deposits off the coast of Angola are slated for both the domestic market and export to Europe, which still gets a big part of its supply from Russia's huge reserves. Plans are also underway to supply both Europe and Asia with the sizable gas reserves in Iran and Iraq.

Forecasting agencies, long known to play it safe before touting new trends, are only predicting a modest increase in gas' share of the world's overall energy mix by 2030.

But some analysts are saying it could be much higher, with big implications for the electricity markets - and coal-fired power plants in particular.

How much do we have?

In the United States, it's this shale natural gas that's got everyone so excited.

This gas has been known about for some time, but new drilling and extraction technology has now made it commercially viable. There are some concerns over the environmental impact of this drilling, especially water pollution, but the sheer amount of new gas is getting major attention.

"We've basically won the lottery," Michael Ming, president of Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America, an organization that studies new natural gas developments, said during a recent Time Inc. conference on energy technologies.

The amount of gas reserves in these new shales could double the nation's known stockpile of natural gas, according to U.S. Geological Survey estimates.

Yet the U.S. Energy Information Administration is only forecasting a rise in natural gas production of under 20% by 2030. And as our overall energy use is expected to rise as well, natural gas' share of our overall energy mix will be little changed. EIA's estimates are in-line with other private forecasts.

Ming is among those who believe estimates for natural gas use are too small. He pointed to estimates from 10 years ago that said just 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas was likely in Texas' Barnett Shale. That estimate is now 50 trillion cubic feet.

"There's a lot of conservatism right now," he said in an interview with CNNMoney. "We're just at the very tip of this pyramid."

What we use it for

Natural gas can be used for many things - to power cars, heat homes, cook, or generate electricity.

It's this last use that will likely represent the biggest opportunity for gas in the next couple of decades.

For the last several years utilities have scrapped plans to build coal-fired power plants in favor of natural gas plants, which emit about half the carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas. This move has become known in the power industry as the "dash to gas."

But that dash has been only half-hearted, said Peter Tertzakian, chief energy economist at ARC Financial, a Calgary-based private equity firm.

Over a decade ago utility execs were promised natural gas would be abundant and cheap. But the production didn't pan out as planned, and gas prices spiked even before oil prices did earlier this decade.

Prices have since dropped significantly, partially due to all the new shale gas, but utility execs are still leery this resource is for real.

'It's a question of believing," said Tertzakian, who also thinks the estimates for future natural gas use are low. "Once they believe the trend, gas demand is more likely to gain momentum."

One company that seems to believe is Exxon Mobil.

Late last year, Exxon (XOM, Fortune 500), the world's largest publicly traded oil company, paid $41 billion for XTO (XTO, Fortune 500), a natural gas company that primarily operates in the Untied States and is big player in the shale area.

Many analysts took Exxon's entry into this space as a sign that the shale gas boom is here to stay.

"They don't move fast and they aren't leading edge, but they don't make a lot of big mistakes," said Tommy Mann, global head of natural gas at the consulting firm Accenture. "If Exxon is looking at it, there must be something there."

What it changes

If natural gas use spreads substantially, its growth will likely be in the power sector.

While it can be used in cars, most analysts say that beyond use in busses or fleet vehicles that have set routes, the infrastructure really isn't there to support widespread use in cars. And the heating market is fairly well tapped.

But in making electricity, it could have real benefits. Ming, from Secure Energy, said that used in the most efficient power plants, natural gas is actually 70% cleaner than coal.

He is promoting an effort to replace the oldest, dirtiest 30% of the country's coal- fired power plants with natural gas, a move he says would shave almost 10% off the country's total greenhosue gas emissions.

Coal power plants will still exists, but impacts from cheap, widespread natural gas are clear.

"The real loser is coal," said Noel Tomny, head of global gas at the energy consultants Wood Mackenzie.

As for the environment, many say a move to natural gas is a good thing but doesn't replace the need to build more renewables and ultimately get fossil fuels out of the electricity generation business all together.

"Gas doesn't get us there," said Dave Hamilton, director for global warming and energy projects at the Sierra Club, referring to the 80% drop in emissions most scientists say are needed by 2050 to avoid the worst effects of global warming.

It may not get us there. But without huge advances in renewable energy, removing all fossil fuels from the electricity market will be a tough proposition. Gas may be the next best thing.  To top of page

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