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tractive," Meggs says. "It is very important that the U.S. doesn't go
the same route, expanding markets and using resources inappro-
priately and then ultimately becoming import-dependent."
While Meggs calls the shale-gas supply in the United States
a "great blessing," he cautions that it is still unclear how large a
resource it will be, because drilling for it "is a relatively young phe-
nomenon." Any energy policy must take those uncertainties into
account, he says. MIT's natural-gas study, for example, will focus on
"not just how much is there but how much it costs to get it out of the
ground, how long it will last, and what is the range [of uncertainties],
both in terms of cost and in terms of ultimate recoverability."
The worry, of course, is that much less gas than experts have
estimated will turn out to be recoverable from shale at an accept-
able environmental and economic cost. Jay Apt, executive director
of the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center in Pittsburgh,
is blunt: "We're in an early stage of a shale boom. Every practitio-
ner in a boom thinks it will last forever and is surprised, in five or
seven years, that it isn't going to last forever." Apt predicts "an inevi-
table downgrading of the number of cubic feet that these depos-
its can supply." After all, he says, "there is a di erence between
what Mother Nature gave you and what the town will allow you to
extract." The gas producers' extensive land and water use is already
creating a backlash in Pennsylvania, he says. And the danger of
rapidly converting more electricity plants to natural gas is that
once shale-gas supplies "top o ," power producers will be reliant
on imports and vulnerable to volatility in their prices.
Some energy experts say that even if supplies of natural gas
remain abundant, it's unclear to what extent power producers
will switch to the fuel, and how long it will take if they do. Many
gas advocates display a "practical naïveté" about the conversion
of coal-fired power production, says David Victor, director of the
International Law and Regulation Laboratory at the University of
California, San Diego. "If you look at the quantity of gas needed
to replace all the coal plants in the United States, you're talking
about increasing gas consumption by something like 50 percent,"
he says. "It's a huge number." Such a large increase in production
will require extensive shale drilling, some of it in heavily populated
locations. And, he says, "we don't know what [the shale-gas drill-
ing] looks like on a truly massive scale." Many of those advocating a
large-scale shift to natural gas are "living in a dream world," Victor
says. "They haven't worked out the practical details."
Generating electricity with more natural gas and less coal could
clearly decrease carbon dioxide pollution. Says Victor, "If shale gas
plays out at very large volumes and at low cost, then it will be a cost-
e ective way of making substantial reductions in emissions." But, he
says, those reductions won't be enough to meet the long-term goal
of cutting the nation's overall carbon dioxide emissions 80 percent
by 2050, as President Obama and a number of other political leaders
have advocated. The switch to natural gas, he says, "buys you a little
time" before other changes can be made, such as introducing more
wind, nuclear, hydroelectric, solar, and other zero-carbon power
sources. "The concern is that natural gas is a bridge to nowhere,"
Victor says. "And it could be a very costly bridge to an outcome that
doesn't readily get you to the 80 percent reductions."
From a technology perspective, natural gas and renewable
sources, such as wind and solar, could complement each other.
Natural-gas-fired turbines could be used to generate electricity
when the wind isn't blowing or the sun isn't shining. But the eco-
nomic and political relationship between natural gas and renew-
ables is more complicated. If federal and state policies continue
to mandate that power producers use more renewables, the elec-
tricity industry is likely to concentrate its new capacity on those
technologies while keeping its low-cost coal-fired power plants.
Policy will drive the use of renewables, and economics will drive
the use of coal. Natural-gas plants will be squeezed out.
Then again, a focus on natural gas as a way to trim carbon diox-
ide emissions could divert attention---and money---from the need
for zero-carbon technologies. "I am a big fan of clean natural gas,
but there is a very big danger of getting everybody revved up about
gas and losing sight of the fundamental technological transforma-
tion that is needed," says Victor.
The availability of vast natural-gas resources in the Marcellus
shale and similar sediments around the United States has changed
energy calculations in a fundamental way. The discovery of this
large and seemingly economical new source of fossil fuel has sur-
prised even geologists who have spent their careers studying the
shale. Little wonder, then, that policy makers and politicians are
just beginning to try to figure out what the discoveries mean.
It's not clear how---or even whether---those responsible for
energy policy will take advantage of the opportunity. At best, the
newly identified supplies of gas will buy time, providing a chance to
reduce greenhouse gases while more innovative technologies are
developed and deployed. At worst, the country will burn through
large volumes of this fuel only to find that we haven't reduced car-
bon dioxide emissions very much---and that we've put o investing
in research to create cleaner technologies.
DAVID ROTMAN IS THE EDITOR OF TECHNOLOGY REVIEW.
"I am a big fan of clean natural
gas, but there is a very big
danger of getting everybody
revved up about gas and los-
ing sight of the fundamental
that is needed," says energy-
policy expert David Victor.
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