Cheap and plentiful shale gas might prove to be the real deal

April 04, 2010|By Jay Hancock

Drill, baby. Just not in the ocean, where there probably isn't much new oil anyway. Head for the mountains, where newly available reserves might hold 10 times the energy estimated to be off the East Coast.

Hopes for a new way of extracting natural gas have been bright for more than two years, after claim-staking "landmen" stormed Appalachia from New York to Tennessee. Now interest from Exxon Mobil and other corporate giants has prompted some smart people to start portraying "shale gas" as a very big deal that shatters assumptions about energy prices, America's power supply and the future of transportation.

Some are calling this "the natural gas century" and calculating that natural-gas prices will stay near present low levels for years or decades.

"An age of plenty for gas consumers" seems to be dawning, The Economist magazine wrote a few weeks ago. "Those in the vanguard of this global gas revolution say it will transform the battle against carbon, threaten coal's domination of electricity generation and, by dramatically reducing the power of exporters of oil and conventional gas, turn the geopolitics of energy on its head."

Pay no attention to the president approving offshore oil drilling last week. That was about trying to generate political energy, not the kind that runs a car. The real action is a hundred miles inland, where drillers releasetrapped gas by blasting underground shale with high-pressure water.

"Shale gas is the real deal," says Stephen Schork, who runs an eponymous, Pennsylvania-based energy analysis firm. "Ten years ago, nobody thought shale gas was possible. In less than 10 years, we went from 'North America is running out of natural gas' to 'North America has enough natural gas to last' - I don't know, what are they saying? - '100 years, 150 years, 200 years.' "

People are shale-gas silly because analysts estimate U.S. deposits could yield the energy equivalent of 110 billion barrels of oil - not only much more than what's on the Atlantic shelf but also about 10 times what's estimated to be in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Much of the stuff comes from the Marcellus shale underneath the northern Appalachians, so it's near and economical for big East Coast cities - including Baltimore.

Shale gas is already helping consumers. I spent $100 less heating my house this winter than I did two years ago, even though it was a lot colder this year. Raw natural gas costs a third what it did in the middle of 2008, thanks partly to lower demand from the recession but largely to shale gas. Cheap natural gas, often used to power electricity generators, has helped lower the cost of household kilowatts.

Globalization also helps drag down natural-gas prices. Thanks to foreign investment in liquefaction equipment and oceangoing tankers, Marylanders have unprecedented access to growing overseas supplies. Qatar pumps out enormous amounts of natural gas and has little choice these days but to dump much of it at the Cove Point terminal on the Chesapeake for whatever price it can get.

But even at today's low prices, people can still make money drilling for shale gas, analysts say. That suggests prices will remain low for years, especially if nascent shale-gas exploration in Europe and elsewhere bears fruit. Recent multibillion-dollar investments by Exxon and French petro-giant Total suggest the U.S. shale-gas boom will last for a long time.

Natural gas is cheap for the planet, not just the pocketbook.

True, there are serious concerns about the chemicals and pressurized water that companies use to fracture shale and extract the gas. Maryland regulators are correctly taking their time to approve four applications for shale-oil drilling in Garrett and Allegany counties. You don't want nasty stuff getting into creeks or drinking water.

"We're just kind of in a holding pattern," waiting for permit approvals, says Joyce Bishoff, interim president of the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce.

With luck, however, regulators will be able to set rules that protect the countryside and allow shale-gas drilling at reasonable cost. Some local environmental damage might be acceptable because of the larger planetary dividends that natural gas delivers.

For one thing, it emits half the carbon dioxide when burned than gasoline does. Achieving the carbon-emission and mileage goals announced last week by President Barack Obama - a day after backing offshore drilling - would be easier if the nation adopted oil baron T. Boone Pickens' idea of converting en masse to natural-gas cars and trucks.

Natural-gas cars cost a bit more than regular ones. But at today's fuel prices, they're cheaper to operate. Last fall, when gasoline was going for $2.64 a gallon, natural-gas drivers were paying the equivalent of $1.86 a gallon, according to NGV America, a trade group backed by Pickens and others promoting natural-gas vehicles.

Taking much more of the electricity-generation burden from filthy coal, a realistic goal if natural-gas prices stay low, would be an even bigger environmental coup.

So shale gas can cut coal's mercury and sulfur pollution, reduce growth in greenhouse gases, increase U.S. energy security and deliver cheap power to Americans struggling with a bad recession. Maybe it really is a big deal.

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