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Natural gas and the energy transition explored at Stanford Natural Gas Initiative’s inaugural symposium

Monday, April 6, 2015
By: 
Mark Golden

Can the surge of U.S. natural gas be managed in a way that benefits the environment, the economy, human health and even peace? Will the United States export the technologies behind that surge or just sell the world its natural gas?

At the first symposium of Stanford University’s new Natural Gas Initiative, some of the most experienced researchers in natural gas and top business executives assessed the opportunities and challenges of what some are calling an impending age of natural gas.

“Abundant quantities of natural gas could provide a critically-needed bridge fuel to a decarbonized energy future,” the Natural Gas Initiative’s director, geophysics professor Mark Zoback, said in opening the symposium. “But the developing world’s growing demand for energy is being met by coal, which is increasing at a rate that will double in the next 20 years. If that continues, it’s game over for fighting climate change.”

Among the issues the new research program will seek to resolve are the potential for natural gas to address climate change and how to minimize negative environmental impacts from horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, which are the key technologies used to extract natural gas from shale rock.

“There’s no question that the development of shale gas resources is a large-scale industrial process that is invasive,” said Zoback. “Public resistance and the issues are real. Addressing these issues can change public opinion nationally and internationally.”

If the gas industry can fix these real issues and clear up some public misperceptions, it could have a clean, safe and prosperous future, Environmental Defense Fund president Fred Krupp told the conference. For starters, Krupp proposed, “the fastest, easiest and cheapest way to make a big dent in the climate situation for the next 20 years is to cut methane leaks from producing gas and oil.”

Methane is the primary component of natural gas and an extremely potent greenhouse gas. Switching from coal to gas for generating electricity cuts emissions of carbon dioxide almost in half, but leaks in the production and transport of gas, research by Stanford’s Adam Brandt and others has found, are worse than official estimates and may be eliminating much of that climate benefit.

Leaks at the other end of the system—urban distribution pipelines—also pose major safety risks, yet local utilities can be very slow in fixing even known leaks, Stanford’s Rob Jackson said at the symposium. Brandt and Jackson are among dozens of Stanford faculty from across the campus participating in the Natural Gas Initiative.

Climate is only one of the environmental issues thwarting shale gas production in some U.S. states and in some entire countries. “The priorities for people who are voting to ban fracking are clean water, all the trucks, air pollution and earthquakes—not methane,” energy economist and president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Paul Joskow, said.

On the other hand, to the degree gas replaces coal and oil, climate could be just one of the potential environmental benefits. Fine particulates in the air from combusting coal and oil in some cities around the world is so intense that the risk of residents getting lung cancer from the particulates is on par with smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, said former U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, now a Stanford professor of physics, and of molecular and cellular physiology. Natural gas combustion produces almost no particulate matter, little sulfur dioxide and no mercury.

Natural Gas and National Security

In addition to researching environmental impacts, the Natural Gas Initiative will also examine the geopolitical implications of burgeoning supplies in the United States and potentially in many other countries. China, for example, has hired western companies to explore shale gas basins in China and test hydraulic fracturing there.

“The Chinese government is quite committed to making shale gas work,” Paal Kibsgaard, chief executive officer of Schlumberger, said at the symposium. “But they have different subsurface characteristics, and water is a challenge. Some of the promising areas are desert-like, and they don’t have the (pipeline) infrastructure that the United States has, so it will take a while.”

China recently scaled back its gas production goals because of these barriers and signed a big new supply contract with Russia. Some symposium participants questioned whether China would become—like Europe—dependent on maintaining good relations with Russia for fuel, but former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, now back at Stanford, characterized the deal as more anti-western posturing than the beginning of a substantial new alliance between two longtime adversaries.

“If you could see the details of that deal, I wonder if it wouldn’t seem to be mostly political,” said Rice, a political scientist who has studied Russia and the Soviet Union extensively. “I suspect if you asked Gazprom what the price of that oil and gas is, you would get a different answer than what the Chinese would give you.”

Export Opportunity

If the United States can minimize the negative effects of its natural gas boom, a geopolitical benefit could be using exports to lessen Europe’s dependence on Russian fuel. “If I were president, I’d approve every natural gas export terminal on the Gulf coast,” Nobel laureate and former SLAC director Burton Richter said at the symposium. “Nothing would scare the Russians more.”

In the near term at least, the United States would enjoy a global advantage if it could build such export terminals. Early attempts to develop shale gas resources have been geologically difficult in countries besides China, like Poland and South Africa, speakers noted. In other countries, like Turkmenistan, Mozambique and Argentina, prospects for unconventional and conventional gas production are more promising geologically, but political and economic issues could stymie development, according to Stanford professor of international studies, Coit “Chip” Blacker, and economist Mark Thurber.

The Natural Gas Initiative plans to bring Stanford researchers together with industry, government and other stakeholders to overcome such barriers. Aside from broader environmental, economic and political issues, symposium participants discussed technological advances, like inexpensive sensors to detect methane leaks, completing wells more securely and lower consumption of local resources. ExxonMobil’s XTO Energy division, for example, has reduced methane leakage 14 percent since 2012 while tripling production, said Paul Krishna, XTO’s environmental, health and safety manager.

Similarly, Deb Frodl, the global executive director of GE’s “ecomagination” program told the symposium about her company’s research on minimizing methane leakage associated with gas production and distribution, and using carbon dioxide instead of water as the fluid in hydraulic fracturing. “That could be a game changer in China,” she said, “where there’s lots of gas, but a shortage of water.” She told the audience that the expanded use of natural gas in electrical power generation, transportation and the petrochemical industry will be one of the pillars of GE’s international businesses in the decades to come.

In policy research, the Natural Gas Initiative could help develop the right incentives for industry to minimize damages at least cost—or even financial benefit in the case of identifying and plugging methane leaks—said Stanford law professor Michael Wara, an advocate of charging money for greenhouse gas emissions.  “The oil and gas sector is one of the most innovative sectors in the country right now,” he said. “A proscriptive regulatory approach risks limiting that innovation.”

The Natural Gas Initiative is a collaboration between Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences and the Precourt Institute for Energy.

Media Contact

Mark Golden, Precourt Institute for Energy: (650) 724-1629, mark.golden@stanford.edu