Natural Gas Entering ‘Golden Age’

Wall Street Journal

The increasing abundance of cheap natural gas, coupled with rising demand for the fuel from China and the fall-out from the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, may have set the stage for a « golden age of gas, » the International Energy Agency said Monday.

Under a scenario set out by the IEA, global consumption of natural gas could rise by more than 50% over the next 25 years, with it accounting for more than a quarter of global energy demand by 2035, up from 21% now. But while natural gas is more clean-burning than coal and oil, it is still a fossil fuel, and its increased use will lead to higher emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming, the IEA warned. More gas will also mean less take-up for low-carbon energy sources like renewables and nuclear power. « An expansion of gas use alone is no panacea for climate change, » said Nobuo Tanaka, the IEA’s executive director.

The global natural gas market is in the midst of a revolution that has huge implications for the future of energy. In the U.S., technological advances like hydraulic fracturing, or « fracking, »—in which water laced with chemicals is injected into the ground to crack open dense, gas-bearing shale rock—have fueled a surge in production from vast new gas reserves stretching from Texas to Pennsylvania. Such techniques are now being applied in other countries with big shale-gas resources, such as China. The IEA says that over the next 25 years, 40% of the growth in total gas production will come from unconventional gas. The shale revolution has led to substantial upward revisions in estimates for total global reserves of gas. The IEA says there are enough gas resources to sustain current production levels for more than 250 years. And unlike oil, which is concentrated in the politically fragile Middle East, gas is widely dispersed geographically, making it attractive from an energy security perspective.

The rise of shale has coincided with a massive expansion of the global trade in liquefied natural gas or LNG, which has vastly increased the availability of a fuel that for decades could only be pumped via pipelines. Gas has also benefited from the repercussions of Fukushima. Japan’s gas demand has shot up after the disaster forced it to take much of its nuclear capacity off line. And long term, Germany’s gas consumption is also expected to grow strongly after it decided last month to shut down its 17 nuclear reactors. But the biggest factor in the development of global gas markets over the coming years is likely to be China, the IEA says. There, demand is expected to soar as the government moves to improve air quality in the country’s heavily-polluted cities by switching from coal to gas in power generation, and running more commercial vehicles and buses on natural gas rather than gasoline.

Under the IEA’s new « golden age of gas » scenario, China’s consumption of the fuel would rise from the level of Germany in 2010 to match that of the entire European Union in 2035. To meet the growth in demand, annual gas production would have to increase by 1.8 trillion cubic meters by 2035—about three times the current output of Russia.

The IEA sounded a note of caution on the boom in shale gas, saying concerns about the possible environmental impact of fracking made the outlook for unconventional gas production « uncertain. » Some conservation groups fear fracking can contaminate drinking-water supplies, though the industry insists the technique is safe when performed properly. Fatih Birol, the IEA’s chief economist, said the agency’s high gas consumption scenario depended on a number of factors—among them, the industry’s ability to fully address public concerns about fracking, excessive water use and the risk of contamination. « If gas companies want to see a golden age of gas, they need to apply golden standards for…producing gas, » he said.

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