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A shale gas revolution?

MIT report shows prosperous shale gas market could hurt future R&D, if we let it.
Shale drilling operation in Los Alamos, NM
Shale drilling operation in Los Alamos, NM
Photo: Department of Energy

Shale gas — a resource that has grown significantly in just the last few years to one-quarter of the domestic gas supply — is cheaper and involves fewer emissions than traditional coal or oil. But recent environmental concerns, combined with shale gas's important role in the global economy, have prompted the Obama administration and MIT researchers to investigate the resource and its potential impacts.

“People speak of [natural] gas as a bridge to the future, but there had better be something at the other end of the bridge,” Henry Jacoby, co-director emeritus of MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, said earlier this year after co-authoring a report by the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) on The Future of Natural Gas.

Jacoby’s nagging thoughts prompted him and other researchers to further study shale gas and how its success could impact U.S. energy policy, including future technological development. Built on the MITEI study, the researchers' new report — The Influence of Shale Gas on U.S. Energy and Environmental Policy — is in this month's inaugural edition of the journal Economics of Energy and Environmental Policy.

“Prior to this we hadn’t compared U.S. gas production with and without shale,” Jacoby says of the new research. “This report makes that comparison. And we found much of what we already knew — which is a good thing — that shale makes a big difference. It helps lower gas prices, it stimulates the economy and it provides greater flexibility to ease the cutting of emissions. But it also suppresses renewables.”

The researchers came to these conclusions by considering what our nation would look like with shale and without shale under several policy scenarios. They found that gas prices would rise by about five times the current levels by 2050 without shale gas, under one scenario; electricity prices would also grow. But with shale gas, prices should only about double. The shale input also reduces electricity price growth by 5 percent in 2030 and 10 percent in 2045, compared to a scenario without shale gas.

A report released last month by IHS Global Insight, a global research firm commissioned by America’s Natural Gas Alliance, shows similar results. Prices would drop 10 percent in 2036 with shale, according to IHS, and the industry would add 870,000 U.S. jobs by 2015.

John Deutch, MIT professor and chair of a special U.S. Department of Energy panel studying shale, agrees with the significant economic contribution the shale industry can provide. Deutch, who was associated with the earlier MITEI report but not the new MIT study, said that the most recent employment estimates showed that there are three-quarters of a million jobs in the shale gas industry.

“More jobs are being created in Pennsylvania and Ohio by shale gas production than anything else that I’m aware of,” Deutch said at a recent MIT lecture, suggesting the significance of those two battleground states in U.S. elections.

“Over the last couple of years I’ve realized that what’s happening with unconventional natural gas [shale] is the biggest energy story that’s happened in the 40-plus years that I’ve been watching energy development in this country,” says Deutch, who served as undersecretary of the Department of Energy in the 1970s.

Shale’s low price tag is one of the reasons for its boom. For every $4 we pay for energy from natural gas, we pay $25 for oil, according to recent statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Jacoby and Deutch agree this is not sustainable, and that there is a great incentive to continue to tap into the shale market — with Deutch calling shale “remarkably inexpensive” compared to other forms of natural gas.

This successful outlook has prompted some of the world’s leading oil companies to further invest in natural gas, and specifically shale gas production. Last month, Shell announced it would double gas production in North America in the next three years and that it has recently expanded its work to China.

But Jacoby warns, “Natural gas is a finite resource. We will eventually run into depletion and higher cost.” He adds, “It still releases greenhouse gas emissions. So if we’re going to get to a point where we strictly limit those emissions, we need renewables.”

The continued need for strong renewables prompts concerns, as the study finds that shale use suppresses the development of renewables. Under one scenario, for example, the researchers impose a renewable-fuel mandate. They find that, with shale, renewable use never goes beyond the 25 percent minimum standard they set — but when shale is removed from the market, renewables gain more ground.

These findings are significant in light of several concerns surrounding the unpredictable shale gas market and future environmental regulations.

One concern about shale gas extraction, and the most headline-grabbing concern, is that fluids from the gas production — a process called hydraulic fracturing, or simply fracking — could seep into and contaminate groundwater supplies. While the report found these concerns to be “overstated,” the Deutch shale panel said in November that “environmental issues need to be addressed now.”

This conclusion, along with uncertainties about how stringent greenhouse gas emission targets will be going forward, leaves the regulatory environment in question.

There’s also the concern that the global gas market is unpredictable because the shale revolution is still in its early stages.

Jacoby says the development of the industry in the United States is important because prices here are much cheaper than in other gas markets — namely, Europe and Asia. While we pay less than $4 per thousands of cubic feet, other markets pay up to $16. Because it is so much cheaper here, there’s the potential for us to become exporters.

But Jacoby calls this really a “matter of timing.”

“In the near term, our supplies are cheap enough that we should have the ability to export,” Jacoby says. “But over time, we likely won’t be able to compete with places like Russia and the Middle East that have lower costs, and eventually we’ll again turn to importing gas.”

Jacoby compares the global gas market to the oil industry. As shale resources are developed in places such as China, which recently announced that it was tapping at least 20 new reserves, prices will likely drop overseas and the United States will turn to cheaper imports as it has for oil.

An uncertain international gas market, an unpredictable regulatory environment with more stringent emission goals and decreasing natural gas reserves over time all point to the growing need to continue developing renewable technologies.

“Effective use of renewables, namely wind and solar, are still many years away,” Jacoby says. “How we tap into those resources and effectively work them into our electric grid still needs to be figured out. To get us there we need a robust R&D program so we’ll have renewable energies up and working effectively later in future decades when emissions regulations are stricter, and gas reserves are depleting.”

Shale might provide the flexibility to meet reduction targets at lower costs today, making it a strong “bridge” in the short term to a low-carbon future. But the report concludes that we can’t let “the greater ease of the near term … erode efforts to prepare a landing at the other end of the bridge.”

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