Natural Gas Replacing Coal Fired Power Plants -- A Major Step Toward Diminishing CO2 Emissions

07/14/2010 08:04 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Raymond J. Learsy Author, 'Ruminations on the Distortion of Oil Prices and Crony Capitalism'

Last week at an Aspen Institute Ideas Festival session Marvin E. Odum, the President of Shell Oil, was in a conversation with Andrea Mitchell. The major theme of the day was, of course, the Gulf Oil disaster, how it might have been prevented, steps to be taken in the future, topics of urgent and immediate importance. In the course of the discussion Mr. Odum brought into focus another important issue. The role that natural gas should play in the abatement of CO2 emissions.

Odum made the audience aware of the newly defined and abundant deposits of natural gas termed as 'shale gas' accessed through novel techniques of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. He went on to discuss the potential of this new resource abundance were it to be used as a substitute for coal, replacing in significant measure coal fired power generating plants, and what it would achieve in the abatement of greenhouse gas emissions.

According to Mr. Odum, converting from coal to gas fired electricity plants would eliminate 50% to 70% of current CO2 emissions, depending on the coal burning systems being replaced, and therefore it is an issue that needs come to the forefront of our Energy policy (please see "Our Lob(otomized)bied Congress' Energy Bill Excludes Our Most Efficient, Cleanest, Newly Plentiful Energy Source: Natural Gas").

Mr. Odum advised that Shell has just committed $5 billion to taking an important stake in the Marcellus Shale, a staggeringly rich shale gas field containing some 500 trillion cubic ft of gas that lies within the Appalachian Basin extending from eastern Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and into New York State. Mr. Odum further advised that Shell was fully aware of the environmental issues related to shale gas drilling such as the risk of shallow fresh water aquifer contamination, yet Shell is confident the environmental impact issues can be managed through careful and fully transparent procedures to the satisfaction of government and oversight agencies, policies his company will follow rigorously and that oversight agencies need enforce universally.

Coincidentally just over a month ago the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's MIT Energy Initiative issued a singularly informative report, informative to all interested in the subject of fossil fuel consumption and its environmental impact, and desirous of having a hands-on understanding of one of the key elements that will unquestionably be at core of the nation's energy future. Its dimension and importance were made clear from the very outset as MITEI Director ErnstJ.Moniz introduced the report stating:

Much has been said about natural gas as a bridge to a low carbon future, with little underlying analysis to back up this contention. The analysis in this study provides the confirmation - natural gas truly is a bridge to a low carbon future"

The report, a comprehensive review, clearly brings into focus the future importance of natural gas as an element of the fossil fuel equation. The study shows a baseline global estimate of recoverable gas resources reaching some 16,200 trillion cubic feet (Tcf), enough to last over 160 years at current global consumption rates.

The report was conducted by a study group of 30 MIT faculty members, researchers and graduate students. It is publicly available here.

It is well worth your while to access this important study where there is an interest in the future of fossil fuel consumption and their environmental impact.