Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Coming Liquid Fuels Crisis: the Natural Gas (partial) Solution

Recently, Dr. Robert Hirsch wrote an article titled "Peak oil - what do we do now?". This brief but content-laden article opined that Peak Oil was essentially past tense, and it correctly implied that little mitigation has taken place, to date. The last paragraph included some mitigation action ideas, but notably missing was any mention of natural gas. Perhaps it was simply an oversight; but with a future liquid fuels/transportation fuels crisis in the works due to Peak Oil, citizens of the United States of America - and their leaders - need clarification.

The truth is, current natural gas prices confirm that there is a substantial surplus of natural gas deliverability in the United States. This surplus is largely due to a rapid development of several huge gas fields which were only discovered in the last several years. These new fields are often referred to as "resource plays", or "shale gas", or "unconventional gas". They are termed "unconventional" because they produce from rock that was formerly not believed capable of being a reservoir, and also due to the fact that this rock forms both the source and the trap for the natural gas.

The two largest of these plays are the Haynesville Shale, located in East Texas and Northwest Louisiana, and the Marcellus Shale, located primarily in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia. The Haynesville might cover around 3.8 million acres and, according to Chesapeake Energy's Aubrey McClendon, it might become the world's largest gas field, with 1500 trillion cubic feet (TCF) of reserves in place. The Marcellus, according to Penn State's Terry Engelder, encompasses 31 million acres, and contain 363 TCF of gas in place. These two plays are only about 2 years old - essentially old enough to have a rough idea of their potential, but brand new from a depletion standpoint. Both of these plays are excellent from both the deliverability and reserves standpoint.

To put that combined 1863 TCF into perspective, the total annual consumption in the US is under 25 TCF. So, with a recovery factor of 50 %, these two fields alone could supply the US with gas at the current rate, for about 40 years. But wait, there are lots of other fields in the US, both conventional and unconventional. And, there are even two more large shale plays, the Fayetteville Shale and the Barnett Shale. In addition to these "Big 4" shale plays there are others which are in the early phases of exploration and development.

So now you are starting to understand why this author is perplexed when folks say that natural gas may be in short supply.

Many of us in the "Peak Oil community" believe that in 2008, the worldwide rate of oil production likely reached a level which, for all practical purposes, will never again be exceeded. In other words, we believe Peak Oil likely occurred in 2008. Dr. Hirsch, in the 2005 report he co-authored for the Department of Energy, said the following:

* "Initiating a mitigation crash program 20 years before peaking appears to offer the possibility of avoiding a world liquid fuels shortfall for the forecast period."

* "Initiating a mitigation crash program 10 years before world oil peaking helps considerably but still leaves a liquid fuels shortfall roughly a decade after the time that oil would have peaked."

* "Waiting until world oil production peaks before taking crash program action leaves the world with a significant fuel deficit for more than two decades." (emphasis added) Additionally, he went on to say, "Late initiation of mitigation may result in severe consequences."

Perhaps we could say that some of the actions taken over the last several years - due to oil price signals - would count for a year or two of preparation; essentially, though, we are set up for Dr. Hirsch's "severe consequences" scenario.

So, given:

* our status regarding preparation for/mitigation of Peak Oil (or
lack thereof).
* the current and near term surplus of natural gas, and the
intermediate and longer term "sufficient" supplies.
* the ease of converting existing vehicles to natural gas.
* the ease of delivering new, dual fuel NG/gasoline vehicles.
(aftermarket conversions, if necessary)
* the existing natural gas infrastructure in terms of transmission
and distribution lines.
* the current availability of small gas compressors for home use.
(yes, they are expensive for one user, but there could be
work-arounds)
* the immediate "commuter solution" (fuel at home, drive 40 miles, return) provided by natural gas vehicles using current, off-the-shelf parts versus the still-being-developed vehicular electrical storage solutions.
* the carbon advantage of natural gas versus coal. (half our
electrical production is from coal, and natural gas produces half
the carbon when burned, in comparison to coal)
* the efficiency losses of converting coal to electricity and
delivering it for use as a car fuel.
* the badly needed jobs provided by the exploration for and the production of natural gas, the conversion of existing vehicles, the production of new dual fuel vehicles and the construction of fueling infrastructure.

... this author doesn't understand why our "policy" does not include natural gas vehicles (NGV's), as at least a partial mitigation to the coming liquid fuels crisis?

One idea, in order to solve the commercial fueling station/NGV availability "Catch-22", would be to subsidize fleets - such as school districts - to immediately incorporate NGV's into some portion of their fleet, while making the resulting fueling infrastructure available to the public. In other words, don't do a full conversion of all gasoline and diesel fleet vehicles to natural gas; rather, let's hedge our bets and get some infrastructure going by converting some of our fleet vehicles to NGV's.

In summary, given the abundance of low carbon emitting, domestic natural gas, the likelyhood for future oil supply shortages and the easy conversion technology and the need for domestic jobs, it is difficult to understand why action is not being taken to promote NGV's as a partial solution.

Endnote: Natural gas should not be counted on for a total replacement of liquid fuels. As James Kunstler would say, we need to re-think "Happy Motoring". With respect to transportation, we need to implement conservation, carpooling and mass transit retrofits, and we need to re-design where/how we work and live. In addition, we need to push the development of algal and biomass fuels, but with consideration of their total environmental costs. We should be accelerating research on electrical storage devices for vehicles so that the plug-in hybrid and full electric car can become reality. In all of the above there are wonderful opportunities for good jobs and a great economy. Natural gas can serve as a clean, convenient, low carbon transition fuel while all of the above are being rapidly implemented. Finally, a natural gas vehicle can become a renewable fuel vehicle. Yes, the same engine that runs on methane produced from a gas well will also run on methane produced from cow manure or sewage sludge, or gas that is pyrolyzed from wood or biomass (1800's technology).

My belief is not that natural gas vehicles will reduce oil imports; rather, oil imports will be reduced by physics, namely "Peak Oil". Natural gas vehicles are simply a very effective tool to help mitigate the effects of the coming liquid fuels crisis - to help get our kids get to school, to help keep our country running - while we develop alternative transportation methods and lifestyles over a twenty year period.

We need to get rid of the divisiveness of, "fossil fuels bad, alternate energy good". Likewise, we need to avoid the reverse. For the next twenty years, we need BOTH fossil fuels and alternate energy.

1 comment:

bmendenhall said...

Excellent article. The simple fact that we have 50 to 100 years (depending on the degree to which the country elects to use natural gas as a transportation fuel) of domestic supply available, at a cost below the gasoline equivalent, should be enough to generate popular support for this idea. I believe that a combination of increased crude oil prices and more diverse promotion of the concept will be needed in order for a natural gas transportation infrastructure to develop. As much as I respect Mr. Pickens and Mr. McClendon, the general public perception is that they are not objective. If independent energy experts would become more vocal in favor of natural gas as an important part of the transportation solution, we could begin to see momentum build.