The global use of natural gas has been increasing almost three per cent every year for the past decade, and by 2035 the world demand is expected to rise by 50 per cent compared to 2010 levels. In cities such as New York, where authorities are desperate for people to switch to cleaner alternative fuels for heating, natural gas has been the answer for many. Euronews’ Seamus Kearney spoke to energy expert Dr. Barry Stevens, a US scientist and technology business developer, about some of the issues linked to gas both now and in the future.
Seamus Kearney: How do we explain this popularity of natural gas? Why is it a good choice for those who are looking for cleaner alternatives?
Dr. Barry Stevens: Basically it comes down to four attributes. Natural gas is first of all affordable, it’s reliable, it’s cleaner and it’s abundant. And that’s cleaner in terms of both pollutants, particulate matter, and also greenhouse gas emissions; there’s no fossil fuel that even comes close to it. Let me just rephrase and make sure people understand when I say reliability, which is very key in the energy industry; it simply means you get your energy from your power source when you want it, not when the wind blows, or not when the sun shines, it’s there 24/7, and that is a problem with some of the renewables. So when you look at natural gas it’s abundant, clean and competitive. And when I say clean, as far as particulate matter is concerned, it’s basically nil, very little if any, and that means really soot. Carbon dioxide is extremely low – but being a fossil fuel there are carbon dioxide emissions – and it really relatively has no sulphur dioxides and relatively very little NOx (nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide). All the other fossil fuels including heating oil, and especially heating oil Number 6, which is essentially tar, has very very high content in soot, particulate matter, and all the harmful gases, and including very high CO2. So nothing comes close. So when you look at what is a logical alternative, there is really no choice today, not to say down the road. But the other energy sources are not really ready to command in a lot of environments, and that includes in electrical generation, cars and for like what New York city is doing, replacing Number 6 to Number 4 or to natural gas in boilers for heating buildings. So natural gas stands alone as the choice today.
Seamus Kearney: Is it fair to say that we’re seeing the golden age of gas? Is this the energy of the future, in the long term?
Dr. Barry Stevens: Good question. Natural gas, again, is a fossil fuel. You get benefits from it, as I said, from lower emissions, but you still have emissions. So, going back to your first question, golden age, I don’t think natural gas has hit its golden age at this point. I think there still needs to be some effort to get it into people or the customers hands, which is a larger distribution system, etc. I think we could be maybe 10 years off. Now, down the road, again fossil fuel has a limited supply. We’re saying the US may have 200 years or so, but then after 200 years we have to come up with another energy source, which probably could be wind, could be solar, could be hydrogen. So, again, long term, natural gas is basically a bridge to the future; it’s buying us time. It’s getting us there; it’s like being on first or second base, but it’s not a home run. And we do need a home run for society to move forward.
Seamus Kearney: Are we going to be able to address some of the controversial issues linked to the extraction and use of natural gas, because obviously that’s an on-going debate?
Dr. Barry Stevens: Natural gas has basically five main concerns: its effect on public health and safety; its effect on the environment; its effect on water resources; its effect on air quality; and there’s also an effect with seismicity, inducing seismic action. Now, basically, all of those are addressable, through regulations, oversight, proper choice of sites, based on its geology, and obviously proper workmanship. When you get down to some of the real causes of what people are upset about – leakage into surface waters and so on – we do attribute it to basically cutting corners within the industry. We do have protocols and standards. Actually, just for hydro fracturing there are 112 standards that are issued by the API (American Petroleum Institute), and when you see where problems have existed it’s basically a violation of either drilling in the wrong place or not following procedures. But there are other things. The air quality is basically what I would say is starting to raise its head. Yes, it reduces CO2 emissions, but natural gas is in itself a more potent greenhouse gas … it has a higher global warming potential. And that is due to leakage, we call that fugitive leakage, and that can happen anywhere along the natural gas supply line, from wellhead to end user. So as we use more natural gas there’s a potential for more leakage in the fugitive leaking, but again since it is a fuel it can be captured, the technology exists, to minimise that. So that really is the issue. And the other thing we really have to do is segment fact from fiction, and really get down to what are the real problems, not what are the perceived problems. But I will attest there have been problems, and again most of it is in proper workmanship, cutting corners. At one time people were just taking the effluent from natural gas wells, which you know it has the ground formation and has some material from the hydro fracturing fluid, and then just discharging it. There are some real problems that have happened, and most of them are attributed to poor workmanship, lack of training and just violating known standards and procedures. So it is doable. It is all doable to really manage it. And one other thing: in anything humanity does, there are risks. The risks are very low here if done right. I mean 100 years of drilling and basically very intensive hydro fracturing since the late 40s, early 50s, have shown it; done right, there is no problem, or the problem is minimised.
Seamus Kearney: Just looking into the future, what are some of the possible advances or new processes that we’re likely to see linked to natural gas in the future?
Dr. Barry Stevens: Well, natural gas is beautiful for any activity that combusts. So first of all you have a huge market in the transportation industry. Every vehicle that has an internal combustion engine can be fuelled by natural gas. Also a big help would be in the electrical generation sector, which is happening now. We’re replacing coal-fired electrical generation plants with gas-fired plants, but also it has uses as a chemical feedstock to produce hydrogen, for hydrogen fuel cells, for materials such as plastics, fertilisers and fabrics. So there is tremendous application in the industry, and actually a lot of that is going on and it’s starting to make America actually competitive in some of the chemicals that we used to import; now we’re becoming an exporter. And that brings a whole other thing: there are needs around the world that this could help, so the US is starting now to be almost a net exporter, rather than a net importer, and that will just drive and drive and drive, and here we are now talking about abundant domestic resources that are clean, available and cheap – and I don’t think there’s anything on the market that can say that.