Sustainable Energy Production – Natural Gas

natural_gasToday is Friday, March 21, 2014.

In his book, The Turning Point: Creating Resilience in a Time of Extremes, Gregg Braden offers some specifics about the energy production of the future, with both short-term and long-term options.

Braden makes it clear that we have long passed the era of “peak oil.”  Referring to a formula devised by geologist M. King Hubbert, Ph.D., Braden says that Hubbert’s predictions about how long our non-renewable oil reserves would last have corresponded very closely to actual production of oil in the United States.  The highest production of oil occurred between 1970 and 1985.  Since that time, production has fallen dramatically, and demand has exceeded production.  Braden credits a growing environmental awareness and more efficient vehicles for some of the lessened demand in the “developed” countries of the West, but he warns that developing economies of India and China now contribute largely to the growing demand.  It is clear that fossil fuels alone can no longer keep up with the global demand.

800px-Natural_Gas_Production_of_Countries

Natural gas extraction by countries in cubic meters per year. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

It’s hard to estimate how much fossil fuel (coal, oil and natural gas) we have left, because these estimates always depend on so-called “proven” reserves – those that have been discovered that can definitely be tapped.  There are also such things as “probable reserves,” “possible reserves,” and “discovered reserves.”  Basically, not all the fossil fuel that is in the ground can be used at this time, until and unless new technologies are developed to tap them safely and cost-effectively.  Estimates on the Internet vary, but it is acknowledged that if used at current rates, oil will last us only until about 2055 or so.  That’s not too far away in time – a little over 40 years from now.  Coal might last a bit longer.  Estimates range from about 80 to 120 more years.

Large deposits of natural gas have been found very recently; Braden notes that the energy market was flooded with much more natural gas than there was demand for beginning in 2011.  He says that, used at current levels, currently known reserves of natural gas could last as many as 250 years.  Braden’s estimate is a lot more optimistic than some other sites on the Internet, which say that even natural gas may only last another 50-60 years.  The less optimistic estimates may have been made before the recent discovery of vast deposits of natural gas in the United States.  Or it may be that they are based more on reserves in the United States, rather than global reserves.  It’s worth noting that no matter how large the U.S. deposits are, the countries with the largest and most numerous natural gas reserves in the world are, at present, Iran, Qatar, and Russia, so when our own reserves run out, guess who we will be beholden to… again!

fracking-II1One thing to remember is that it doesn’t matter how much fuel is in the ground if it is costly or dangerous to get out of the ground, transport, or refine for use.  The other thing to remember is something that was pointed out in an article on the LiveScience website.  “The limiting factor on humans’ fossil fuel use will not be the exhaustion of economically recoverable fossil fuels, but the exhaustion of the Earth’s capacity to withstand the harmful byproducts of fossil fuel combustion.”

Braden makes a case for the use of natural gas, at least for the foreseeable future.  First of all, natural gas produces less carbon dioxide than coal or oil.  It produces much less carbon monoxide than coal, and only a little more than oil.  It produces vastly less sulfur dioxide and particulates than coal or oil.  In other words, natural gas burns about 50 percent cleaner than coal or oil.  It’s also less expensive, especially now that a lot of it is flooding the energy market.  Braden says that natural gas should be thought of as a “stepping stone” to meet global energy needs, but that it must be supplemented by increased local use of renewable sources, such as solar, wind, geothermal and hydroelectric power.  (Not all local areas can produce all of these renewable forms of energy.)

energy-new-york-state-awaits-health-study-fracking_65880_600x450The main problem with natural gas is that it comes from shale, one of the most common sedimentary rocks in the world.  In order to get the shale gas to flow into the wells, the shale must be fractured through the use of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”  Early shale gas wells depended on natural fractures, but nowadays, almost all shale gas wells depend on fracking.  Since the year 2000, shale gas has become a major source of natural gas in the U.S. and Canada, and other countries are now considering natural gas production, as well.

flametapOne of the best websites I have seen about the dangers of fracking is this one.  Although the process is called “hydraulic,” which makes it sound like pure water is used, that’s not entirely the case.  It’s true that waster is used, though, and for each well, hundreds of tanker trucks carry water to the site.  Currently, that means a lot of conventional gasoline (from oil) is used to produce natural gas!   For each fracking job, between 1 and 8 million gallons of water are used.  (What else could we be using this water for?)  The water is combined with sand and a mixture of nasty chemicals to create “fracking fluid.”  What chemicals?  Well, over  600 chemicals are used, including such carcinogens and toxins as lead, uranium, mercury, ethylene glycol, radium, methanol, hydrochloric acid and formaldehyde.  As we’ve been hearing in the news, this deadly mixture of chemicals plus the methane gas released from the production of natural gas leaches out from the system to contaminate our groundwater, resulting in everything from troublingly murky drinking water to water that is actually flammable as it comes out of the tap!  The methane gas released into the air from the extraction and refinement of natural gas adds to the overall burden of greenhouse gases in the air. According to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, methane gas has a high “global warming potential,” 21 times higher than that of carbon dioxide, or CO2.

still-gasland

Another depiction of the fact that natural gas is not a clean source of energy. Photo credit; Kayla Ente/Progressive Action.

Basically, natural gas, while still considered abundant and inexpensive, is nevertheless a non-renewable resource, and it is not as clean an energy source as necessary for the long-term.  The cost in terms of pollution of our soil, water and air, and the resulting contamination of our water and food supplies, has to be weighed against the monetary cost of extracting, refining, and transporting it, and when we do this, natural gas comes up wanting.

The fact that natural gas is now so plentiful and cheap undercuts the efforts of countries such as Germany to phase out their nuclear power plants in favor of energy supplied by solar and wind power.  So far, Germany has decided not to expand their use of natural gas, which currently provides 11% of their energy needs.  The problem is that 35% of their natural gas comes from Russia, and there are definite fears that Russia might at some point decide to reduce the flow of natural gas to the West for retaliatory political reasons.  I like how Germany is sticking to their guns about producing most of their energy from clean, renewable sources, and I hope that they will eventually make liars out of all those who insist that it cannot be done.  What the naysayers forget is that we may yet develop ways to harness solar and wind power, as well as geothermal and hydroelectric power, more reliably and cheaply.  While it’s true that not all locations on earth can provide all of these forms of energy, we have certainly not yet developed any of these resources to capacity, by any means.

Meanwhile, one bright spot in the production of natural gas is that there is a company based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada says they have developed a method of fracking that uses no water at all.  Instead, a gel made from propane and a combination of “relatively benign” chemicals is used.  Propane is a hydrocarbon that is naturally present underground, and the other chemicals are magnesium oxide, a chemical that is used in stomach medicines and as a desiccant for preserving library books, and ferric sulfate, used in water treatment plants.  The company has already used this relatively green fracking process 2,500 times in 700 different wells in the United States and Canada. If this method is as environmentally friendly as they say, I hope it will become much more widely used in the future.

Tomorrow I will write about a potential source of energy that seems truly promising: thorium.  Stay tuned. 🙂

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