Energy Agency's 'Golden Age' for Gas

11/04/2011 10:56 am ET | Updated Jan 04, 2012
  • Bill Chameides Dean, Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment

How gold would natural gas's golden age be? It may depend on the eye of the beholder.

A special report (see fact sheet [pdf]) from the International Energy Agency released in advance of the World Energy Outlook 2011, due out November 9th, examines how ramping up natural gas would impact energy and climate up to 2035.

The Top Line - The Reason to Be Bullish on Natural Gas: Quantity

There's a lot of the stuff out there -- vast supplies of natural gas are widely distributed across the globe. IEA estimates every region of the globe has at least a 75-year supply at current consumption rates.

Going for the Gold: What Boosting Natural Gas Production Would Bring

In the report, IEA modeled how an increased emphasis on natural gas extraction from conventional and unconventional (read shale gas) sources would affect all things energy- and climate-related. The group's most bullish projection for natural gas is its "golden age of gas" scenario in which an additional 600 billion cubic meters of the gas would be produced by 2035. Here are some of IEA's key findings for this scenario:

  • Natural gas consumption will increase by more than 50 percent from today's levels by 2035, and will overtake coal consumption by 2030.
  • Conventional sources will dominate, but unconventional sources (like shale gas) will contribute more than 40 percent of the increase in supply.
  • Eighty percent of the increase in consumption will occur in developing countries, which would also account for more than 85 percent of the increase in production over this period. China would become a top producer.

Natural Gas and Climate

As for climate? Conventional wisdom has it that natural gas is the most climate-friendly, low-carbon fossil fuel out there. (But not everyone agrees, and there's a pretty healthy debate -- see here [pdf], here, and here -- about the size and role of so-called fugitive emissions, which if large enough could conceivably make natural gas not much better or even worse than coal.)

The IEA places natural gas and shale gas in particular in the low-carbon/carbon-friendlier category, arguing that, with the "best practice in production, effectively monitored and regulated," the carbon footprint of shale gas, based on "available data," is only "slightly higher" than that of conventional gas (and far less than that for oil or coal).

But even with an approach that treats natural gas as being relatively climate-friendly, and assumes the "golden age" scenario, IEA still projects that we will be unable to stop temps from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius.

Upping our use of natural gas would come primarily at the expense of coal but would also displace oil and nuclear. The net effect [pdf] is that our energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions would decrease only "slightly" in 2035 (compared to the central scenario developed in last year's World Energy Outlook [pdf]), putting emissions on a long-term trajectory consistent with stabilizing atmospheric CO2 at around 650 parts per million, and suggesting a long-term temperature rise of more than 3.5 degrees Celsius. (More here [pdf])

In 2010 IEA predicted that CO2 emissions would have to peak at 32 billion metric tons before 2020 and decrease to 22 billion metric tons in 2035 to stay below 2 degrees Celsius. In contrast, IEA's new "golden age" scenario puts emissions at 35 billion metric tons in 2035.

Natural Gas and Environmental Impacts

And what about the environmental impacts of shale gas extraction?

The IEA tends to be optimistic. It acknowledges there are serious environmental pitfalls, but opines that with "proper standards of environmental responsibility" these pitfall can be largely mitigated.

Golden Age Not All That Golden

One of the striking aspects of IEA's go-for-broke-with-natural-gas world is that it does not make that much of a difference and certainly does not place natural gas at the top of the heap when it comes to energy production (oil with 27 percent of primary energy demand retains that position).

  • The "golden age" scenario only produces 12 percent more energy from natural gas than the central scenario.
  • Even with its total production increased by 50 percent by 2035, natural gas would only account for about 25 percent of total energy production. Not that much more than the 21 percent natural gas provides today. In other words, going all out on natural gas production would allow the fuel to keep pace with, but not gain much ground on, rising demand.

One Bottom Line: No Silver Bullet Here

Shale gas is not going to be the panacea that gets us out of our climate and energy binds. Whatever happens with natural gas and the exploitation of unconventional sources like shale gas, we're simply going to have to work harder on efficiency and the demand side.

And while we're at it, let's recognize that because of a lack of data, fugitive emissions of natural gas remain a wildcard in all this and will remain so until we get adequate data. And I'm not the only one to say so. In its 90-day final report released last August, the Natural Gas Subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board specifically pointed out the need for comprehensive information on fugitive emissions. If shale gas is to play such a large role in our energy future, wouldn't it behoove us to have that info sooner rather than later?

Crossposted with, a blog on environmental happenings by Dean Bill Chameides