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Environmentalists Unrealistic About Leaving Natural Gas in the Ground

Renewables are decades away from meeting U.S. energy needs

Norm Shade | Sr. Consultant & President Emeritus ACI Services Inc. Published: October 3, 2016 12:49 PM
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As an engineer and retired business leader, I believe that renewable energy and energy conservation are important for meeting our long term energy needs, especially if they can reduce dependence on oil imports that drain U.S. financial wealth and enrich countries that are not necessarily friendly allies.

I also believe that climate change is real. In fact, scientific evidence shows that the earth’s climate has changed continually since the beginning of time, with both warming and cooling cycles. However, I am not convinced that scientific evidence proves that the current climate change cycle is caused by humans or by the use of fossil fuels. But that debate is not the primary objective of this article.

Natural gas and oil production from every well – big and small - declines rapidly with time. In as little as one or two years, production typically declines to a small fraction of what it was originally. Therefore, new reservoirs must be discovered and new wells must be continually drilled (and stimulated by hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”) to the maintain production levels required to meet the nation’s energy needs. Otherwise, shortages occur and energy prices increase drastically (as occurred in 2003 to 2014 before U.S. shale resources were widely developed).

So, it is a concern that anti-fossil fuel advocates are gaining ground with politicians calling for bans on fossil fuels and fracking. A July report4 by Oil Change International (OCI), a coalition of national and regional organizations opposed to fossil fuel production and consumption, opposes all pipeline capacity expansions, especially any carrying natural gas to market from the Appalachian Basin.

In brief, the report opposes construction of any further pipeline infrastructure carrying natural gas to market from the Appalachian Basin, and recommends that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and other government agencies be required to apply a “climate test” in their consideration of any new transmission and processing capacity anywhere. This is similar to the Obama administration’s rationale for rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline.  The American Petroleum Institute and a number of other groups have said that these recommendations, if followed, would destroy jobs and manufacturing competitiveness, imposing dramatically higher energy costs on American consumers, workers, businesses, and communities; and would seriously harm the entire U.S. economy.

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OCI’s report says that in 2010, the Appalachian Basin (which includes Southeastern Ohio, West Virginia and much of Pennsylvania) produced just 4% of U.S. natural gas. At its projected peak in the 2030s, the Appalachian Basin could be supplying about 50%. This production growth cannot be realized without building the pipeline capacity to carry it to market. It pointed out that there are 19 pending natural gas pipeline projects that will increase takeaway capacity from the Appalachian Basin to double gas production from the region in the coming decade. Dozens of downstream projects are also planned, such as the Shell ethylene plant near Pittsburgh. The group said that these projects should not be allowed to go ahead and that not acting to constrain gas production and consumption to within science based climate limits is a major risk we face. It went on to say that this and future administrations have the ability to apply the same standard to gas infrastructure as what was applied to the Keystone XL pipeline. That means applying a climate test to these proposed gas pipelines and all proposed fossil fuel infrastructure. It said that a climate test would assess the need for new fossil fuel infrastructure against science-based climate goals (generated from a complex computer model based on many assumptions, not necessarily hard scientific data). The bottom line is their goal of banning all fossil fuels, including natural gas.

That would mean that all the energy would have to come from renewable sources. The largest component of renewable energy is hydroelectric, which requires building dams and flooding land. This is unpopular with environmentalists and, of course, the residents and property owners affected by it. Other renewable sources are biomass, geothermal, wind and solar. Of these, wind and solar are, by far, the renewable sources that are viewed as having the most potential for growth.

Wind (4.7%) and solar (0.6%), combined, accounted for only 5.3% of U.S. electricity generation in 2015 as shown by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) data in Figure 1. Yet, the OCI report asserts that these sources can somehow replace both coal and gas-fired power generation (which accounted for 66% of U.S. electricity generation in 2015) in the near future. It asserts that if natural gas production is artificially constrained by denying new pipeline infrastructure, investment will magically flow to produce enough wind and solar power to make up the difference.

There is no question that wind and solar are important, but it’s prudent to look at the facts and to use reasonably logic in reaching decisions. Even with massive government subsidies, including the Obama administration’s economic stimulus package, wind and solar’s share of U.S. electric generation has increased by an average of only about 0.5% per year over the past decade (from 1% to 6% of total electric generation). The picture is even worse when wind and solar’s contribution to the entire U.S. energy consumption - including transportation fuel, residential and commercial heating, etc. – is considered. EIA data in Figure 2 shows that wind and solar accounted for only about 2.3% of all U.S. energy needs in 2015. The data also shows that wind and solar increased their combined share of total energy consumption by a total of only 2% over the past 10 years. At that rate, it would take about 50 more years to reach 100%.

Despite these statistics, OCI and many politicians draw an extremely illogical conclusion that fossil fuel production is no longer needed. One of their arguments is that once capital is sunk into the natural gas infrastructure, it will produce power at minimal marginal cost, unfairly disadvantaging the development of renewables. This ignores the obvious conclusion that the same is true for wind and solar. More likely, healthy competition between fossil fuels and renewables would spur innovation and investment, driving costs lower for both types of generation.

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Another problem with the group’s logic is that solar or wind energy is intermittent. Energy is generated only when the sun shines and the wind blows. That is not necessarily when there is peak demand for energy. At other times, clouds reduce solar production and darkness shuts it down entirely. Wind too, varies with the time of day and the weather, producing either too much or not enough energy to match demand. Unlike the energy sources used in conventional fossil fueled power plants, the sun and the wind are not controllable. One hope is that excess solar and wind energy can be generated and stored for use when these sources are off line. But alternatives remain very limited. One idea, compressed air storage in underground caverns, is expensive and wastes about half the energy. Another, battery storage, is also very expensive and has limited capacity. Practical and commercially feasible energy storage appears to be more than a decade away.

The final flaw in OCI’s logic has to do with the fact that wind and solar are only used to generate electricity. But electricity does not power very many transportation vehicles (and no airplanes other than a few small experimental and hobby craft). It does not heat many homes, businesses and factories, and it is not a feed stock for chemicals and plastics. The replacement of all furnaces, natural gas and oil (gasoline and diesel) engines, etc. would be an overwhelming financial burden and it would take decades to accomplish. Only with those replacements, added to the massive investment required for 50 times as many wind and solar farms as currently exist, plus power lines and storage facilities, could wind and solar potentially meet all the country’s energy needs.

The effects of energy conservation and higher efficiency should not be discounted, but industry experts agree that most of the easy gains in efficiency have already been made. Nuclear energy is also an option, but it is even more unpopular with activists and much of the general public. So, fossil fuels – mostly abundant natural gas - have to fill the energy gap for many decades to come. The alternative would be to turn our life style back 100 years, living without lights, air conditioning, heat or transportation when renewable sources were off-line. And, of course, air travel would disappear entirely until such time that practical battery powered airplanes might be developed. Environmental activists neglect to mention these problems when they advocate banning pipelines, hydraulic fracturing or whatever other issue they can raise in the interest of shutting down oil and gas development and production.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 6, natural gas-fired electric power generation produces only half of the emissions of other fossil fuel sources, and API contends that its growth in the U.S. over the past decade has been responsible for the greatest reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions anywhere on the planet. When sources of energy compete on their merits, consumers, workers and the overall economy will benefit. Lower energy costs will enable U.S. manufacturing to gain competitive advantage in the global marketplace, and GHG emissions will continue to decline with the use of natural gas to replace coal-fired electric generation and gasoline and diesel fueled vehicles. But the essential link is natural gas pipeline transmission capacity. The U.S. is blessed with huge reserves of economically available and clean-burning natural gas. Its availability should not be constrained by opposition that is based on flawed assumptions and illogical conclusions.

Renewable energy is consistently characterized as more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels, but as emphasized in a July 2016 article5 in Power, renewables have some environmental impacts that are rarely publicized. Arguably, solar energy is the most environmentally benign source of electricity, once a solar plant is in place. But getting there has more environmental impact than most people realize. The process of making solar photovoltaic (PV) cells uses huge amounts of electricity. Much of the world’s PV cell manufacturing occurs in China, where electricity is generated with coal. And turning raw silicon into polycrystalline silicon for PV cells involves a number of toxic and corrosive materials. For example, with each ton of polycrystalline silicon several tons of corrosive and toxic silicon tetrachloride are produced. Although this can be recycled to produce silicon and hydrochloric acid, the process is expensive, so not all manufacturers recycle it. The PV manufacturing process also involves other toxic substances such as hydrofluoric acid, and it produces substantial wastewater and solid waste streams. Treating and recycling that waste costs money, and some PV manufacturers, including a well-documented case in China, have cut corners by dumping untreated waste into waterways5.

Wind farms, too, have environmental impact. The most controversial has been the issue of bird and bat mortality. The change to the landscape and the noise associated with large wind farms are additional concerns.  Less known is that wind turbines use permanent magnets that require rare earth elements such as neodymium, the extraction of which can have serious environmental consequences because of the acids used in refining and the frequent occurrence of uranium and thorium in the ores. Even higher volumes of these magnets are used in electric vehicles. Not to be overlooked is that fact that most of the world’s neodymium is mined in China.

ExxonMobil dismissed calls for the banning or limiting of fossil fuels as unrealistic3 and even President Obama’s chief science and technology advisor stated2 that natural gas is imperative to a clean-energy future and grid stability. The notion that we’re going to be able to keep it all in the ground is unrealistic. Our economic well-being and, arguably, our future standard of living are dependent on abundant energy at reasonable costs.

Renewables do have an environmental impact, and perhaps even more importantly given the critical raw materials and wind and solar equipment that come from outside the country, complete dependency on them would put U.S. strategic interests and financial well-being at significant risk. There are no easy solutions. Artificially picking a winner – whether fossil fuels or renewables – is not in the best interest of the country. Like it or not, development of both will be needed for the foreseeable future.  

We must help educate politicians and then hold them accountable for basing their positions on facts and sound scientific evidence. It’s important to consider political candidates’ positions on these critically important issues in the coming election!

1.Energy Equipment & Infrastructure Alliance, EEIA Issue Alert: Pipelines in the Crosshairs, July 2016 (www.eeia.org).

2.Fitzpatrick, Jack, Morning Consult, Obama Adviser: Keep-It-in-the-Ground Movement ‘Unrealistic’, July 11, 2016. https://morningconsult.com/2016/07/11/obama-adviser-keep-ground-movement-unrealistic/

3.Molinski, Dan, Exxon Official Says a Ban on Fossil Fuel is Unrealistic, The Wall Street Journal, August 2, 2016.

4.Oil Change International, A Bridge Too Far: How Appalachian Basin Gas Pipeline Expansion Undermines U.S. Climate Goals,” July 2016.

5.Overton, Thomas W., Weighing the Environmental Impacts of Wind and Solar, Power, July 2016.

6.U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report: 1990-2014.

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