NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Natural Gas Flip-Flop

August 2, 2011

The world's projected natural gas supplies jumped 40 percent last year.  Until a decade ago, experts believed it would be technically infeasible to exploit the natural gas locked in 48 shale basins in 32 countries around the world.  Then horizontal drilling, combined with hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, was introduced.  The shale gas rush was on, and last year the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) dramatically raised its estimate of available natural gas, says Ronald Bailey, Reason Magazine's science correspondent.

The ability to produce clean-burning natural gas from shale could transform the global energy economy.

  • Right now we burn about 7 trillion cubic feet (TCF) of natural gas to generate about 24 percent of the electricity used in the United States.
  • The United States burns a total of 23 TCF annually to heat homes and supply industrial processes as well as produce electricity.
  • Burning coal still produces about 45 percent of U.S. electricity.
  • A rough calculation suggests that 100 percent of coal-powered electricity generation could be replaced by burning an additional 14 TCF of natural gas, boosting overall consumption to 37 TCF per year.
  • The EIA estimates total U.S. natural gas reserves at 2,543 TCF, which suggests that the United States has enough natural gas to last about 70 years if it entirely replaced the current level of coal-powered electricity generation.
  • Similarly, it should be possible to replace all current U.S. gasoline consumption with about 17 TCF of natural gas per year.
  • So replacing coal and gasoline immediately would require burning 54 TCF annually, implying a nearly 50-year supply of natural gas.
  • And replacing dirtier coal and gasoline with natural gas would reduce overall U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by about 25 percent.

The national green lobbies initially welcomed shale gas.  But there is growing concern over the fracking method used to extract the natural gas.  But, says Bailey, no industrial process is completely benign, and all have environmental consequences.  The relevant question is: Do the benefits outweigh the costs?

Source: Ronald Bailey, "Natural Gas Flip-Flop," Reason Magazine, August/September 2011.

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