It is a remarkable paradox: At a time when the rest of the world is looking toward America for leadership in combating global warming, some refuse to accept the only energy source that can make a real difference now in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions ... natural gas! Natural gas is clean, reliable and very cheap. Its carbon dioxide emissions are significantly less than that of coal which has been used to drive our economy for decades. While natural gas is not the only clean source of energy, its low cost and availability as a fuel for producing electricity is unmatched. Consequently, electric utilities are switching to gas to generate electricity.
Since gas produces 60 percent less carbon dioxide emissions than coal, the use of natural gas in the power industry is achieving measurable benefits. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), U.S. energy-related emissions of carbon dioxide are at their lowest levels since 1992. That's impressive, because the nation's economy, despite a downturn in recent years, is 60 percent larger than it was two decades ago. Yet we're emitting fewer greenhouse gases.
Improvements in energy efficiency are part of the reason for lower greenhouse gas emissions. Automobiles on average get more miles per gallon. Mild weather last winter and reduced energy consumption over the past few years also were factors. The principal reason for the reduction, however, has been the revolution in natural gas production due largely to horizontal drilling methods and multi-stage hydraulic fracturing in shale formations.
Natural gas is among the greatest gifts ever bestowed on Ohio. Both the Utica and Marcellus shales have rich natural gas deposits as well as oil in some parts of the state. Not only is gas leading to a lower-carbon future, its production has created tens of thousands of jobs throughout the Appalachian region. In Ohio, the economic benefits of drilling are numerous and substantial and, to various degrees, all people benefit. Mineral owners receive substantial lease payments plus long-term royalty payments, while increased revenues go to government at all levels. Other winners are manufacturers of steel piping needed for shale-gas drilling and well completions, and the chemical industry that uses natural gas as a building block for many products including ethylene and fertilizer. Manufacturers are hiring more workers and there is a significant trickle-down effect to the rest of Ohio's economy.
Because gas has become cheaper than coal, the trend toward its increased use is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. To be sure, coal is not going to be completely displaced, nor should it be. We need to improve technology so that coal can be burned even cleaner, because coal, like natural gas, is one of America's greatest natural resources. Coal-fired plants are needed to keep the electricity grid stable, and utilities understandably want a hedge against the possibility that gas prices might climb in the years ahead.
Natural gas, however, is likely to be the dominant energy source in electricity production for the foreseeable future. EIA projects that the levelized cost of an advanced combined-cycle natural gas plant entering service in 2017 will be $63.10 per megawatt-hour, compared to $97.70 for a conventional coal plant and $110.90 for an advanced coal plant. Wind and solar energy will also be more expensive than natural gas, with new wind generation estimated to cost $96 and solar photovoltaics, $152.70. Already, inexpensive natural gas is putting downward pressure on electricity costs for millions of American homeowners and businesses. At a time when everything else is going up in price, America can look to a cheap and stable resource in our vast reserves of natural gas.
Demand for natural gas is not going away and neither is hydraulic fracturing. But environmentalists who oppose natural gas production are making it harder for the U.S. economy to wean itself from coal. That is shortsighted, since the natural gas industry is committed to continuous improvement in fracturing operations and waste-water treatment. Fracking is being done safely in the Marcellus and Utica shales and other shale formations elsewhere across the country. Energy producers should be commended, not demonized, for adopting safe and environmentally sensitive drilling and well completion practices.
We are blessed to have significant shale deposits in our own backyard. If we want to avoid being held hostage to climate change, we should encourage full production of our shale-gas resources and work with companies to increase our domestic energy supply.
Robert W. Chase is chair and professor of Marietta College's Department of Petroleum Engineering, 215 Fifth St., Marietta.