The Obama administration seems to have bought the mythos of abundant shale gas - a mythos that has completely shoved aside all discussions of peak oil. Remember peak oil - the idea that we would eventually (i.e., in 2006) peak our ability to extract oil? Smart peak oil folk speak knowledgeably about proven and probable reserves and predict that, sooner or later, oil would become too expensive to extract. That meme is being replaced by a new one: thanks to fracking and other technologies, we have an abundance of shale gas, shale oil, and other relatively hard-to-extract, costly-to-extract products. And they’re sitting under American soils. A sampling of stories: David Brooks, in the New York Times, on the shale gas revolution; the Wall Street Journal reports that oil and gas bubble up all over - “You'll know the U.S. energy industry is really on the rebound when North Dakota's newfangled Bakken oil field starts pumping more crude than Alaska's stalwart Prudhoe Bay. Energy experts expect it to happen in 2012”; and Nathan Myhrvold, in Bloomberg, on the energy revolution that keeps carbon on top:
The new resources are so vast that they would last for a century at current rates of gas consumption. And this cheap form of energy isn’t under the control of a foreign dictator, stuck in the Arctic or submerged miles below the sea -- it lies in the farmlands of New York, Pennsylvania and Texas.
A lengthy discussion of each potential problem with natural gas fracking would be, well, lengthy. Suffice to say that academics dispute whether shale gas is cleaner than coal; a glut of natural gas is deterring wind investment; according to the Environmental Protection Agency, state regulations don't go far enough to protect workers and water; fracking chemicals have been detected in a Wyoming aquifer; and fracking has been implicated in cow deaths, earthquakes, and most recently an oil well blowout.
At least one observer hasn’t bought the hype. Chris Nelder, a peak oil expert, asks What the frack? and concludes that reserves are grossly overstated:
Assuming that the United States continues to use about 24 tcf per annum, then, only an 11-year supply of natural gas is certain. The other 89 years' worth has not yet been shown to exist or to be recoverable.
Natural-gas proponents aren't advocating current rates of consumption, however. They would like to see more than 2 million 18-wheelers converted to natural gas, in order to reduce our dependence on oil imports from unfriendly countries. They also advocate switching a substantial part of our power generation from coal to gas, in order to reduce carbon emissions. Were we to do those things, that 21-year supply could quickly shrink to a 10-year supply, yet those same advocates never adjust their years of supply estimates accordingly.
Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) queries why America is rushing to export natural gas, focusing both on the cost of energy and natural gas' role as an alleged bridge fuel in reducing carbon emissions.
Natural gas can't be separated from oil - about a quarter of natural gas comes from oil wells, and the price glut is partly because, with oil at $100 a barrel, oil companies have every incentive to keep drilling for both.
We're at the beginning of an American natural gas boom/glut/bubble. The Obama administration seems to be making an awfully big assumption that shale gas can be extracted in a safe and environmentally responsible manner, and it's presumptuous to be pushing shale gas as an investment in America before the EPA weighs in.