The release of a major new study today that boosts estimates of U.S. natural gas resources is shaking debates over the use and regulation of a fuel that could help slow global warming but could create other environmental concerns.
The report by the Potential Gas Committee, a nonprofit group that provides closely watched analyses of U.S. resources, shows a 35 percent jump in domestic gas estimates.
The United States has a total resource base of 1,836 trillion cubic feet (tcf) worth of likely and potential resources, the report says, a sharp jump from the last estimate two years ago of 1,321 tcf, and the highest in the group's 44-year history.
With the addition of Energy Department estimates of proved reserves, the total U.S. future supply is 2,074 tcf, a rise of more than 35 percent from the committee's last biennial estimate.
The increase is largely due to the viability of tapping gas from shale formations, such as the Barnett in Texas, the Marcellus in Appalachia, the Haynesville in Louisiana and the Rocky Mountains.
"New and advanced exploration, well drilling and completion technologies are allowing us increasingly better access to domestic gas resources -- especially 'unconventional' gas -- which, not all that long ago, were considered impractical or uneconomical to pursue," said John Curtis, professor of geology and geological engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, which supports the committee's work.
But the increasing use of a technique called hydraulic fracturing to access these shale plays has sparked a Capitol Hill battle over regulating the extraction method. Several Democrats have introduced legislation that would bring the technique under Safe Drinking Water Act regulation -- reversing an exemption in a 2005 energy law -- and require disclosure of chemicals used in the process.
The industry and allied groups are fighting the effort. They say it would slow access to what the new report demonstrates is an abundant domestic energy source.
"Hydraulic fracturing is the Rosetta Stone of natural gas development. With it, otherwordly amounts of shale and tight-pocket gas can be found, produced and delivered to Americans who need it. Without it, those resources remain trapped underground," said Chris Tucker, a spokesman for Energy In Depth, an industry-backed group that recently launched an effort to fight the legislation.
A spokesman for Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), the sponsor of the fracturing legislation, said her bill is not about preventing gas production, which she supports, but that the extraction technique must have more oversight and disclosure.
"I would definitely say that she believes it is a necessary technology for the energy market. She also believes we need to ensure the health of the public as these processes are taking place," said DeGette spokesman Kristofer Eisenla.
Report sparks climate debate
Meanwhile, the report is also significant in light of pending congressional efforts to enact a sweeping bill to place mandatory limits on U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
House Democratic leaders plan to bring a sweeping climate bill to the floor in the coming weeks that is sponsored by Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). The greenhouse gas caps in the Waxman-Markey bill would curb U.S. emissions by 17 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels, with an 83 percent cut by 2050.
Burning natural gas currently provides about a fifth of U.S. electric power, and gas produces half the greenhouse gas emissions of coal. However, switching to gas creates concerns about the costs that could accompany increased demand if supplies were tight.
Joe Romm of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, has called attention in recent weeks to the higher U.S. supply estimates driven by shale gas plays. He calls increased estimates a "game changer" and very good news.
Romm said the new report underscores that the 2020 emissions reduction targets in the Waxman-Markey bill are certainly achievable and may even be too weak. That is because with ample supply, gas will remain at a moderate price -- around $5 to $6 per million British thermal units -- and will keep compliance costs down, he said.
He noted that a key factor behind the cost of capping carbon is the cost to replace existing coal plants. With cheaper natural gas, that can more easily be done with idle natural gas plants built during a overbuild in the 1990s that are connected to the grid system, but the fuel has been too costly to use until now, said Romm, a former DOE official.
"I think this is a big deal," Romm said of the higher estimates. Additional gas will also encourage more utilities to build wind generation, as natural gas is currently the best backup power for the intermittent energy, he said.
But others have their eye on these U.S. supplies as a way to power vehicles.
Famed Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens is spending aggressively to promote his plan to transition vehicles such as heavy-duty trucks and city fleets to natural gas in order to curb demands for oil imports. Pickens also supports a major build-out of wind for electricity, which would help free up natural gas for vehicles.
He quickly seized on the new report.
"Obviously, this underscores what Boone has spoken about for well over a year and gives further credibility to a key aspect of the Pickens plan, and that is using natural gas as a transportation fuel alternative to foreign oil, diesel and gasoline," said Jay Rosser, a spokesman for Pickens.
"This should quiet any skeptic who is concerned about using our abundant supplies of natural gas as an important transitional fuel," he added.