Massive discoveries of natural gas reserves in shale gas formations has meant that the prices have gone down substantially and new power plants and infrastructure is being developed to use natural gas as fuel. Even as crude oil and coal prices have gone through the roof, natural gas prices have dived. This is due to the new technology being commercialized which is allowing huge shale gas deposits to be used. This has led to forecasts that natural gas will become a more important part of the energy mix in the coming days. The falling prices of natural gas has also led to declining electricity prices in the USA where shale gas development is the most advanced. Natural Gas prices have gone down to as low as $3.5/mmbtu from $8 in 2008 and experts predict that it may go down to $2.5/mmbtu.
Shale Gas has its own critics who say that the shale gas deposits are much lower than being said and they deplete much faster. Environmental concerns are also being raised about the fact that it leads to poisoning of the water supplies with France banning shale gas mining completely. Natural Gas is a byproduct of Oil Drilling and in the earlier days it used to be looked upon as an irritant and burned off. But now it is being used to generate power, in chemical and fertilizer plants and also being used in some parts of power vehicles as well. Natural Gas is also used for Heating in most western developed countries and for Cooking as well. With increasing availability it is replacing coal and oil in power plants and transport now.
Advantages of Natural Gas
1) Cheap and Abundant – The biggest advantages and Pro of Natural Gas is that it is now cheaper than almost any other fuel. New ways of extracting Natural Gas has made it abundant and in the coming days massive formations are waiting to be discovered.
2) Provides 24/7 and Continuous Source of Power – Natural Gas can provide electricity 24 hours, 7 days a week unlike other sources of renewable energy. This makes it very important and some gas solar and gas wind hybrid plants are being developed. General Electric has developed very efficient Gas Boilers and Engines to improve the Efficiency of Gas to Energy Conversion.
3) Used for providing Peaking Power – Natural Gas is used to provide Peaking Power that is Electricity when Demand is very High. Note Nuclear Plants and Hydro Plants run continuously and it makes no difference to cost to stop them. However Natural Gas as no constraint and it is used to provide power at peak times and is stopped when demand is lower. This makes Natural Gas important to the development of Renewable Sources of Intermittent Energy like Wind and Solar Energy
4) Most Important Fuel for Cooking and Heating – Natural Gas is the most commonly used fuel for heating and cooking. Oil is not used as it is costlier.
5) Easily Transported Through Pipelines and as Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) – Natural Gas Infrastructure is being developed rapidly and it is now transported over land through big Pipelines and over Water through massive LNG Tankers. This is done in a cost effective manner which implies that Cost of the Gas is not increased too much.
Disadvantages of Natural Gas
1) Greenhouse Gas Emissions(GHG) – The biggest Disadvantage of Natural Gas is that it releases Carbon Dioxide which has been sequestered for millions of years in the dead bodies of plant and animals. This transfers the Carbon from the Earth to the Environment leading to the Global Warming Effect. Global Treaties have failed in putting a Cost on this,though individual countries are tying to account for this through Carbon Taxes and Cap and Trade. Natural Gas has been touted as a much Greener Fuel as compared to Oil and Coal. However some experts dispute the fact that Natural Gas is cleaner and say that if you consider the lifetime impact from the mining of Gas to its use it may be more harmful to the environment than Oil.
2) Pollution of Water and Earth– Natural Gas leads to Air Pollution as some Gas escapes into the Air and its not possible to capture all the Natural Gas that is released. Shale Gas has raised huge concerns for causing toxicity to nearby water bodies.
3) Growth in Terrorism and Violence– Gas is drilled in some of the worst dictatorships like Saudi Arabia, African countries. This Money goes directly into the hands of these despots who have amassed trillions of dollars. They give rise to violence and growth in terrorism as this oil money is used to fund these organizations. Osama Bin Laden comes from one of the richest Saudi families.
4) Non Renewable Source of Energy and will eventually Deplete – Like other sources of fossil fuel energy, Natural Gas Energy is going to deplete eventually and does not form a sustainable answer to man’s energy questions. While the current large discoveries have made Natural Gas Cheap, these will also become empty. Compared to Gas, Solar and Wind Energy will last for a very very long time and building infrastructure for these cleaner fuels is more useful.
5) Dangerous to work with and Combustible – Natural Gas is highly combustible and it can lead to explosions if not carefully handled. This is the reason that it is not used in vehicles more. Also it exists mostly in the gaseous state which makes handling it more difficult than Oil.
There have been concerns raised about the environmental degradation resulting from Shale Gas Production. Recent incidents of water and soil contamination from Pennsylvania has led to voices being raised in protest. Note all Fossil Fuel extraction leads to some extend of Environmental Pollution both during extraction and during usage. Shale Gas in no exception. However some unique types of Pollution being reported by Farmers has led to more focus on this still nascent technology. Pennsylvania has quarantined cattle which have fallen sick after drinking toxic waste water. Shale Gas Extraction requires injecting Water mixed with Chemicals at High Pressure to fracture Shale Rock formations. This results in contamination of water with chemicals that can lead to human and animal sickness. The problem arises from “Fracking” that involves mixing of water and toxic chemicals. Reports from US indicate that tap and toilet water in houses near these gas wells have been severely contaminated. Their have also been reports about Gas Leakages. Federal Regulators have tentatively started investigating Shale Gas Technology. But the Oil Industry in typical fashionis opposing the scope of the study. Reminds me of Saudi Arabia blocking the study of climate change on rising seal levels. The Oil and Gas companies currently don’t even have to reveal the chemicals they are using during the Fracking process. Lets hope that this Regulators do their job otherwise it could lead to another BP Oil Spill type of disaster in the future. The laxness of the Oil Drilling Regulator was a major factor in one of the world’s biggest environmental disasters.