Natural Gas as a Bridge into Renewable Resources

The use of natural gas as our “bridge” or our means to sustain our way of living until renewable resource technologies become reliable is a topic of fierce debate. In fact, the issue was raised in the last State of the Union Address by our President who spoke of the possibilities we can achieve with natural gas under the right and safe conditions, “...it's the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change. Businesses plan to invest almost $100 billion in new factories that use natural gas" (Obama). This research paper will examine the possible benefits and consequences of using natural gas through a variety of scopes-economically, environmentally, socially and more in order to determine the utmost efficient energy policy the United States can adopt to reach sustainable development. I believe natural gas to be a useful tool but it must be extracted carefully, albeit a seemingly insurmountable feat. I will also draw parallels between gas and the devastation of oil pollution in Riki Ott's Not One Drop_because those with experiences with either have polarized opinions; they either like oil and natural gas for their profits or detest them for disrupting their way of life and environment. Natural gas is continually grabbing the attention of nations around the world as the “better” or cleaner fossil fuel. According to Kreuter et al., “Since the 1970s, known global natural gas reserves have increased about 5% per year” (435).”

As natural gas gains popularity internationally, states and companies must decide the best way to utilize this alternative to coal and oil to maximize profit. The argument can be made that natural gas may be our best not only in maintaining modern amenities that are part of our daily life but also as a way to stimulate the economy. This was a concept even the President highlighted in his State of the Union Address, “My administration will keep working with the industry to sustain production and job growth while strengthening protection of our air, our water, and our communities” (Obama).

Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) is a prominent player in the source of energy arenabecause as we've seen in oil over the past hundred years, when something new is discovered and commoditized, employment in producing, transporting and regulating that sector expands tremendously. Other countries have taken notice of this and are trying to capitalize. For example, in India, Kelkar proposes for Indian officials to incorporate a natural gas policy for its economic incentives, “The new gas policy can bring large benefits to the Indian economy due to a number of positive outcomes... Second, it will reduce imports of crude oil and thus bring in considerable macroeconomic benefits” (10). If other countries see the value that natural gas can bring to their economy, it would only make sense for the United States to adapt a similar mind set. In fact, we see a trend happening in our own backyards.

Even some states have displayed great economic benefits from extracting and producing natural gas. Schrag, a professor from Harvard University, who specializes in Environmental Science and Engineering, noticed an interesting trend. He asks us to, “Consider the case of Pennsylvania, where coal production exceeds gas production on an energy-equivalent basis, but employment by the gas industry now exceeds employment by the coal industry” (79). This means that LNG and the jobs dealing with it can stimulate our economy. Something which would definitely be appreciated due to the high levels of unemployment the nation has seen since the economic recession in 2008. Some might fear that careers in the field of natural gas, there will eventually be a peak in growth where many US citizens will be left out. However, Kreuter et al. argues that "It is established that with current technology and extraction rates recoverable resources could supply natural gas for about 90yr" (435). This means job employment will not only experience a sharp increase in the United States if the government decides to use natural gas effectively, job security in those fields will be proverbially set in stone. Even in the conventional job market we see today, few careers can guarantee a steady resource for income for nearly an entire century afterwards. If a father works for nearly 30 years, his son can then take his father's place in the workforce. The 90 year natural gas phenomenon makes the aforementioned scenario possible.

Others might question how expensive the costs of developing natural gas plants and the drilling necessary for extracting natural gas. If the costs are greater than the future financial return, or even the present return on established fossil fuels like coal and oil, it wouldn't make sense for the United States to enter this venture. Kelkar understands this concern and offers his two cents, "For instance, if you look at the international liquefied natural gas (LNG) prices or the Henry Hub price for domestic gas in the United States, both track very closely the corresponding crude oil prices" (9). If that's true, oil and natural gas aren't too far as far as their fiscal drain on the US economy. The government can, in good conscience (at least money-wise), expand into the natural gas business here on US land.

Besides the economic situation of the United States, we must consider natural gas and its relation to the environment. Undoubtedly, a new source of energy should not become popularized in any from in the United States if doing so would detrimentally affect our environment. Freeman, an engineer, lawyer and one of the first to address energy concerns in the White House, explains that natural gas has become quite common in many parts of the country. He says, “Natural Gas also became the favorite way for the electric power industry to clean up, and most power plants built in the last twenty years run on natural gas" (175). LNG has proven to be a reliable source for the US to maintain its power plants. As far as chemical composition, coal and oil are more similar to Liquid natural gas than natural gas is to renewable resources like wind and solar power. Conversely, the maintenance dollars that goes into generating natural gas is not too different from renewable resources. Freeman explains, “Today, electricity from wind, biomass, and geothermal can be generated at or near the cost of natural gas in the six- to ten-center-per-kWh range. Coal is lower priced but new coal-fired plants with good controls will not cost customers much less than renewables directly and will cost much more indirectly" (87).

Natural gas faced major scrutiny because natural gas, at the end of the day, just like its notorious counterparts, gas and oil, is still a fossil fuel. Hence, when it releases energy and breaks down, pollutants are released into the atmosphere, only worsening our already dangerous situation with major climate change. Yet, there are a number of knowledgeable individuals who contend natural gas to be not only just on par with the gas emissions of commonplace coal and oil, but in some instances even better for the environment. Kelkar elaborates on this point, “As compared to liquid petroleum products, natural gas would emit 25 to 30% less CO2 and roughly half when compared with coal per unit of heat generated" (8). While not at all a renewable resource, natural gas seems to be a mid-point between perceived toxic coal and oil and the "green" sources like wind and solar. This is a characteristic that a "bridge" to renewable resources must have.

Similar data substantiates the claim that natural gas and oil are the safer option in comparison to coal and oil. Freeman states that, “The reasons is that it is not a renewable resource, but is by far the cleanest of the fossil fuels, containing one-half the carbon in oil and one-fourth the carbon in coal" (174). Liquid natural gas is proving to be the cleanest fossil fuel out there.

Despite its humble beginnings (similar to oil), from discovery onwards, natural gas is becoming a part of the US without any tangible government prompting. Kreuter et al. notes the statistic that supports this assumption, “Natural gas currently provides about 22% of the nation's energy supply" (435). In fact, even outer space exploration relies upon natural gas. According to Freeman, “Today hydrogen is used in the manufacturing industry and the space program, and 48 percent is produced by steam-heating natural gas” (87).

Unfortunately, despite facilitating a growth in skilled sector fields and leaving a smaller carbon footprint, Liquid natural gas has its own problems that cannot be overlooked when deciding whether to use natural gas as our “bridge”. Just like what happened during as well as after the oil boom, companies and unsavory people began to abuse the people who lived on the land and the land itself. Riki Ott, a marine toxicologist who lived in Cordova, Alaska, saw first-hand the devastation that oil left on the people of Cordova, their livelihood and the environment. Companies like Exxon take advantage of places with oil and this is scenario that can happen with natural gas too. Riki Ott tells us about how, "Once the oil companies had their authorization permit, they launched an aggressive campaign against double-bottom tankers. Within two years, the Coast Guard changed its mind and no longer supported double-bottom tankers” (24). Those double-bottom tankers were set in place to prevent spills than can damage the environment. These oil companies also promise certain conditions in order to keep safety for everyone involved but when given the change, reneged their initiatives if it's cheaper to do so. The innate self-interest is the deciding factor for companies, not the well-being of those involved.

The action taken by Exxon after discontinuing double-tankers shows a pattern of deceit and pursuit to "cut corners”. Ott explains how “BP blatantly converted three of its double-bottom tankers charters, the Prince William Sound, Tonsina, and Kenai, to single-hull tankers by drilling through the inner cargo walls to access the space in the double walls and carry more oil” (25). Oil companies saw their bottom line: make more money. It was at the expense of safety and if large oil companies think like this, it would be naïve to think natural gas companies do not enact similar policies.

Even more disturbing was the fact that Alaskan citizens were "paid off” to look the other way on the matter. This is a nasty example of poor ethics displayed by major oil companies. Ott tells us, “That same year every single Alaska resident-man, woman, and child—received a $1000 check from a trust set up to hold 25 percent of the state's revenues from oil-related mineral leases and oil royalties and disperse dividends to the public" (27). While it wasn't out-right called a bribe, if you need to pay the locals in order to stop any of them from complaining, the behavior must be normatively questionable.

Due to oil companies abusing the local environment in Cordova, many people's only source of income-derived from commercial fishing—was greatly disturbed thanks to the incompetence of handling the oil and safety measures associated with oil. This caused other unforeseen consequences. During Ott's stay in Cordova, he saw how the locals' lives fell to shambles when their livelihood was placed in jeopardy. Many people turned to drugs and alcohol, all because their quality of life was compromised by oil and those who only cared about making money off oil. Ott says, “ John Crowley, Director of the Mental Health and Alcohol Clinic in Cordova, reported a fivefold increase in the number of patients” (50). These instances, a lot of the time were hidden from the public forum. Ott was surprised that, "...6,722 respiratory claims, representing roughly two-thirds of the frontline cleanup crews, were reported to Exxon medical doctors in 1989, but Exxon had failed to report these illnesses to federal and state health officials” (55). Once again, we are exposed to the corrupt practices conducted by oil companies. Practices and policies any major company might adopt to maximize profits, perhaps even LNG companies.

Natural Gas can be extracted through a variety of means and one of them is referred to as “fracking”. Rijke explains that hydraulic fracking, , commonly referred to as “fracking', is a controversial technique for recovering oil and gas from underground rock layers that has been available since the mid-20th century, but has not been commercially viable until this last decade” (13). Furthermore, natural gas must go through a processing regiment before becoming LNG as used by factories and space programs alike. According to Rijke, “In the process of coal seam gas extraction it must be separated from highly saline 'produced' water. It must then becompressed, chilled and converted into a liquid (LNG) totransport effectively" (17). This process has gained the attention of numerous environmentalists and scientists who protest fracking as a harmful process to the environment. The harmful effects or fracking and its controversial rise in usage in public media are similar to that of oil. If they both have a similar projection, it would be bad policy for the United States to forfeit major political power to companies who can damage the environment. Just like how oil destroyed Cordova's way of life, Rijke recounts how Gasland demonstrated the bad effects of fracking, “...with its threatening images of pollution and combustible tap water" (13). The people living on this land are losing while major companies like Exxon are winning through their continued oil or natural gas projects to make money.

I believe the key is to extract natural gas in places aside from locations close to where people live and it is possible to do this in order to make a "bridge” to renewable resources. Schrag explains, “But if our goal is to minimize cumulative global emissions over the next century, the delayed investment in renewable technologies may set us back more than the climate benefits achieved from a marginal reduction in US coal consumption” (77). We need to be wary of depending on natural gas for too long. Sure, in the short run we are technically polluting less but taking too long may result in the US taking on an opportunity cost. A good amount of time could have gone to improving methods to more efficiently harness renewable sources like wind and solar power.

Some companies are making an active effort to avoid hurting the environment. Youker tells us about Seneca Resources Corp., a subsidiary of National Fuel Gas Co., one of the companies drilling in state forests. He says, “Seneca has worked with state foresters to improve well pad designs to minimize impacts on the environment, says Nancy Taylor, a company spokeswoman. By combining drilling locations and taking advantage of drilling techniques, the company has been able to reduce the number of well pads by one-third". With correct techniques and safety regulations intact, natural gas can be a viable “bridge” into renewable resources.

Bibliography

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