The Unexpected Rise of Natural Gas

Article excerpt

With growing advantages to its use, natural gas may usurp oil as the world's energy resource of choice.

When the U.S. Senate called a hearing in 1984 to assess the prospects for natural gas, almost everyone expected a gloomy session. At the time, gas production in the United States had been falling for 12 years and prices had tripled in a decade. It seemed a textbook example of a rapidly depleting resource.

Few were surprised when Charles B. Wheeler, senior vice president at Exxon - the world's largest oil company - told the Senate that natural gas was essentially finished as a major energy source. "We project a shortfall of economically available gas from any source," said Wheeler.

Only one voice interrupted the gloom that pervaded the hearing room - that of Robert Hefner, an iconoclastic geologist who headed a small Oklahoma gas-exploration company and grandson of one of the earliest oil wildcatters. Hefner told those in attendance, "My lifetime of work requires that I respectfully have to disagree with everything Exxon says on the natural-gas resource base."

A decade later, legions of government and industry analysts have had to eat their words, while Hefner has turned his contrarian views on natural gas into a comfortable fortune. Natural-gas prices in the United States fell sharply after 1986 and production climbed. By 1993, the nation was producing 15% more gas. For the world as a whole, gas production has risen 30% since the mid-1980s, with increases recorded in nearly every major country.

The world now appears to be in the early stages of a natural-gas boom that could profoundly shape our energy future. If natural-gas production can be doubled or tripled in the next few decades (as Hefner and a growing number of geologists believe), this relatively clean and versatile hydrocarbon could replace large amounts of coal and oil. Because it is easy to transport and use - even in small, decentralized technologies - natural gas could help accelerate the trend toward a more-efficient energy system and, over the long run, the transition to renewable sources of energy.

Advantages of Natural-Gas Use

The environmental advantages of natural gas over other fossil fuels were a strong selling point from the start. Methane is the simplest of hydrocarbons - a carbon atom surrounded by four hydrogen atoms - with a higher ratio of hydrogen to carbon than other fossil fuels. Natural gas helped reduce the dangerous levels of sulfur and particulates in London's air during the 1950s. In fact, these two contaminants are largely absent from natural gas by the time it goes through a separation plant and reaches customers. Natural-gas combustion also produces no ash and smaller quantities of volatile hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxides than oil or coal do. And, unlike coal, gas has no heavy metals.

As a gaseous fuel, methane tends to be combusted more thoroughly than solids or liquids are. Due to its lower carbon content, natural gas produces 30% less carbon dioxide per unit of energy than oil does and 43% less than coal, thus reducing its impact on the atmosphere. It is also relatively easy to process compared with oil and less expensive to transport (via pipeline) than coal, which generally moves by rail.

To be fair, methane gas is not entirely benign. When not properly handled, it can explode. And as a powerful greenhouse gas in its own right, it can contribute to the warming of the atmosphere. But with careful handling, both of these problems can be reduced dramatically.

Gas as a Power Generator

Natural gas is far more versatile than either coal or oil, and with a little effort can be used in more than 90% of energy applications. Yet, until recently, its use has been largely restricted to household and industrial markets, in which it has thrived. In North America, for example, natural gas is far and away the most popular heating fuel. By the early 1990s, nearly two-thirds of the single-family homes and apartment buildings built in the United States had such heating systems. …