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Friday, August 24, 2012

Shale gas and green energy in the EU

This article provides an excellent overview of the view of shale gas and feared harm to renewable energy development in Europe. 

Evidence of shale gas depressing renewable energy development seems to me to be sparse in the U.S..  It is much more a so-far missed opportunity by policymakers and the gas industry (despite the urgent imperative) to use gas to propel a clean energy future.  But conditions in the EU could be different. 

To me the most telling quote in the story is this one:

"The industry will need to change radically the way it approaches fracking if it is to have a future in Europe, said Andrew Gould, chairman of British oil and gas company BG Group."

As I've written, what happens in the U.S. - and particularly Pennsylvania - doesn't stay here for the gas industry.  Better performance - and an embrace of not only stronger regulation but also gas' role in driving renewable energy and a new wave of clean economic growth - await in a leadership vacuum. Will any gas companies respond?

NETL assesses natgas energy sources and identifies a huge opportunity with CCS

The National Energy Technology Laboratory says that large natural gas deposits in the U.S. can be used for cost-effective, very low carbon electric-power generation, with the biggest environmental impacts coming primarily from burning the gas rather than producing it.   “(P)roperly engineered and implemented natural-gas systems,” NETL says, “have favorable environmental and cost profiles in comparison to other energy sources."

In a report "Role of Alternative Energy Sources: Natural Gas Power Technology Assessment," NETL analyzes various gas-fired electricity generation technologies on a life cycle basis to evaluate their environmental characteristics. The NETL study looked at greenhouse gas and other air emissions; water withdrawal, discharge, and quality; and land use change in making its assessment.

NETL’s analysis confirmed once again that greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas-fired electricity generation are less than half of those of coal-fired power plants on a system-wide average.  More importantly, NETL's analysis of the cost of equipping gas-fired plants with carbon capture and storage technology shows that costs are coming down. CCS-equipped gas generation offers the opportunity to vastly lower the greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation at manageable costs.  

This potential must, in my view, be deployed now to save off a disastrous rise in global temperatures. NETL's study should urgently propel the policy discussion around deploying CCS-equipped gas generation.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Speaking at the Maryland Groundwater Symposium in September

I will be speaking at the morning plenary session of the 21st Annual Maryland Groundwater symposium on Thursday, September 27, 2012 in Baltimore.  The event is hosted by the Maryland Department of the Environment.  My topic will be: Maryland and Shale Gas: Lessons from Pennsylvania.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

U.S. EPA seeks nominations for fracking study Science Advisory Board

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is requesting nominations for a Science Advisory Board (SAB) panel for its study of the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources. The request is published today in the Federal Register. Nominations are due September 11, 2012.

In announcing the request, EPA said:
“This is the Agency's latest step to ensure that sound, high quality science is the foundation of EPA's efforts. EPA has previously committed to an SAB advisory review of the progress report on the study, which is scheduled for release in December 2012. The SAB may also provide advice on other technical documents and issues related to hydraulic fracturing upon request by EPA. The SAB review of the 2012 progress report and the 2014 report of results will ensure that the EPA is conducting the study to meet the highest standards of scientific rigor, data quality and peer review. In a complementary effort, EPA is ramping up its stakeholder engagement process to ensure that the study is reflective of the latest technical information and responsive to the concerns of stakeholders.”
The commitment to science – wherever it leads – is crucial is developing the right regulations and policies to ensure the responsible development of shale gas resources and realization of the benefits it promises.

Monday, August 20, 2012

U.S. CO2 emissions drop – a good start, but hold Mr. Smith's hand firmly

The United States’ emissions of carbon dioxide have fallen dramatically to its lowest level in 20 years.  Our nation has cut its carbon emissions more than any other country in the world in the last six years, thanks mainly to cheap natural gas that has led many power plant operators to switch from dirtier-burning coal. The swift change - coal’s share of electricity generation has fallen from about half in 2005 to 34 percent in March, 2012 - caused total U.S. CO2 emissions for the first four months of this year to fall to 1992 levels. (A mild winter and reduced gasoline demand also helped.)

As an added bonus, the switch from coal to gas is also substantially reducing air pollution. Compared to gas-fired power, coal-fired power plants emit 90 times as much sulfur dioxide (which causes acid rain), five times as much nitrogen oxide (precursor to smog) and twice as much carbon dioxide, according to the Government Accountability Office, and vastly less soot and mercury pollution.

Is this hopeful trend sustainable?  Can Adam Smith’s invisible hand level a tilted energy playing field, sweep away dirty air, and lead us to victory in the battle against climate change?

Uh, no. Not alone, anyway, for at least five reasons.

First, the price of natural gas, even with the shale boom, is volatile. Some analysts are warning that an overemphasis on natural gas is a threat to energy stability, placing U.S. energy security as the mercy of sudden shifts in gas prices. Clearly, gas’ price competitiveness with coal is precarious.  $2.75 per mcf (or perhaps a range between $2.50-$3.25) is seen as the tipping point where some analysts claim that gas will stop displacing coal as the preferred fuel for electricity generation. Today – or more precisely, as I type this - natural gas futures are trading at around that mark. Market swings and electric utility response matter.

Second, coal and energy use are still growing rapidly in other countries, particularly China and Europe, and CO2 levels globally are rising, not falling. A potential shale gas boom in Europe or China could change the dynamic to some degree - China gets 80 percent of its current electricity from coal.

Third, while natural gas may be our biggest available climate stabilization toolthe International Energy Agency has said that  a greater reliance on gas alone would not be sufficient to halt perilous rises in global temperatures.

Fourth, there is the urgent need to minimize methane emissions from shale gas production to ensure that carbon emissions are not offset – or more than offset – by methane releases.

And finally, there is the looming prospect of the U.S. exporting natural gas.  While natural gas exports are touted on trade grounds, they will surely raise domestic prices and could derail the emissions reduction train. And they may or may not harm the climate.  

And what about the fear that the current shale gas-enabled reductions are coming at the expense of renewables, precluding the longer term emissions decreases and transition to clean energy that are crucial in the fight against climate disruption? On that front, fears seem to be overblown.  For example, wind power can be an effective hedge against volatility in natural gas prices.  In the midst of the shale gas boom in the U.S., wind power will have more than doubled since 2008 and its growth is strong, though its continued growth is threatened by on-again, off-again Federal tax support. Annual renewable energy distributed generation installations - solar photovoltaics, small wind power, and stationary fuel cells - are projected to nearly triple by 2017. And financial innovations are driving growth in the solar market.   

Still, the bottom line is that the climate gains from shale gas are promising but insecure. We need regulations that ensure responsible production and lock in the climate (and public health) benefits of gas.  We need energy policies that leverage gas’ attributes for more aggressive carbon emission reductions, and optimize the use of gas as the bridge to a renewable and efficient energy future.

We need to keep the carbon emissions reduction train on track and full-steam ahead, by firmly grasping Mr. Smith's hand.

Keynoting the Howard Baker Forum in Washington DC on September 25

I will be delivering the keynote address on Day 2 of  The Changing Outlook for U.S. Energy: Will Shale Gas Transform America's Energy Future?, presented by The Howard Baker Forum and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, on Tuesday, September 25, 2012, at The Newseum in Washington, D.C..

My topic will be: The Role of Science and Technology in Mitigating Risk.