Discuss as:

100 years of natural gas? Hype gets reality check

Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens released this photo saying it shows a hydraulic fracturing drill site in the Pavillion/Muddy Ridge gas field. The group said it was taken from the porch of its chairman, John Fenton.

The hype around seemingly limitless reserves of natural gas made available through the technological innovation known as hydrologic fracturing, or fracking, may be just that — hype — according a new analysis of the data behind the claims.

An April press release from the Potential Gas Committee lies in the crosshairs of Chris Nedler's analytical reporting for Slate.com

The committee, an organization of petroleum engineers and geoscientists, estimated a future gas supply of 2,170 trillion cubic feet (tcf), which at the current rate of consumption of 24 tcf per year, translates to a "95-year supply of gas, which apparently has been rounded up to 100 years," Nedler writes.

He then explains that only 273 tcf of that total are "proved reserves." That fits with data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The remaining amount is broken down into categories ranging from probable to speculative. Of this reasoning, Nedler writes:

C.J. Marshall / AP

This file photo shows the outside of a natural gas drill site owned by Chesapeake Energy in Leroy Township, Pa.

By the same logic, you can claim to be a multibillionaire, including all your "probable, possible, and speculative resources."

Assuming that the United States continues to use 24 tcf per annum, then, only an 11-year supply of natural gas is certain. The other 89 years' worth has not yet been shown to exist or be recoverable.

Of course, consumption could rise, especially if we convert coal-fired power plants to natural gas and use it to fuel more of our cars and trucks. 

At the end of the day, the future natural gas supply could end up being as large as the most optimistic projections, or fall way short. "We simply don't know, and we may not know for years to come," Nedler concludes.

The full analysis is well worth a read including Nedler's discussion of Houston-based energy consultant's Arthur Berman's skepticism about the claims of our natural gas reserves.

Other energy analysts really do see a bright future in natural gas, especially shale gas.

In "The Quest," the author and energy analyst Daniel Yergin, calls shale gas "the biggest energy innovation since the start of the new century, [that] has turned what was an imminent shortage in the United States into what may be a hundred-year supply and may do the same elsewhere in the world."

The sentiment is echoed in Michael Graetz's "The End of Energy", where he notes that "a consensus among analysts has emerged that domestic reserves, along with those in Canada, are adequate to supply both countries for many decades, if not a century."

These writers and analysts also point to the controversy surrounding the environmental impact of fracking technology, which involves injecting millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into wells to break apart the shale and release the trapped gas.

This controversy, in turn, could hobble the pace of natural gas drilling and put a damper on the hype machine surrounding the future of natural gas. Or not. Only the future will tell.

More on natural gas and fracking:


John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.

 

Next-gen nuclear plants could provide carbon-free energy, but the painfully slow process of approving better, safer reactors — not to mention real anxiety over meltdowns and waste — threaten to derail projects before they can be built.