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August 25, 2011

More Natural Gas or Less?

"Geologists Sharply Cut Estimate of Shale Gas" is the headline of a New York Times story today on a report from the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

"USGS boosts amount of Marcellus Shale gas reserves" was the headline of a Wall Street Journal reprint of an AP story on the same USGS, which ran Tuesday.

Hmmm…. Time to check the original sources.

According to a press release from the USGS which accompanies the report:

"The Marcellus Shale contains about 84 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered, technically recoverable natural gas and 3.4 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable natural gas liquids according to a new assessment by the U. S. Geological Survey (USGS).

"These gas estimates are significantly more than the last USGS assessment of the Marcellus Shale in the Appalachian Basin in 2002, which estimated a mean of about 2 trillion cubic feet of gas (TCF) and 0.01 billion barrels of natural gas liquids.[hiliting mine]

"The increase in undiscovered, technically recoverable resource is due to new geologic information and engineering data, as technological developments in producing unconventional resources have been significant in the last decade. This Marcellus Shale estimate is of unconventional (or continuous-type) gas resources."

You'd have to agree that 84 trillion is a lot more than two trillion. Note that these two estimates are only nine years apart. The old one wasn't wrong for when it was written; just didn't take fracking into account.

However, the NYT's headline isn't technically wrong, just sloppy in comparing apples to oranges. From the lede of their story:

"Federal geologists published new estimates this week for the amount of natural gas that exists in a giant rock formation known as the Marcellus Shale, which stretches from New York to Virginia.

"The shale formation has about 84 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered, technically recoverable natural gas, according to the report from the United States Geological Survey. This is drastically lower than the 410 trillion cubic feet that was published earlier this year by the federal Energy Information Administration (EIA)." [hiliting mine]

You have to read two-thirds of the way down the NYT story to find that the previous estimate from USGS was two trillion cubic feet. On the other hand, the AP story quoted by the WSJ doesn't mention the disparity between the numbers given by USGS and the EIA. According to the NYT, the EIA plans to revise its number downwards. "They're geologists; we're not. We're going to be taking this number and using it in our model."

So why the difference in editorial bias? And why does it matter?

First things first. The facts about supplies of accessible natural gas matter enormously to energy policy. If we are going to have cheap and abundant natural gas for at least the next few decades, it is very hard to justify huge investments in new nuclear, solar, and wind energy – all of which are much, much more expensive for generating electricity than natural gas at current domestic prices and none of which are directly useful for heating our homes or powering road vehicles. Domestic natural gas directly replaces imported oil from unfriendly places and produces much less CO2 when burned than oil and much, much less than coal. As a bonus NG is very light on other pollutants found in coal and oil smokestacks. Oh yeah, natural gas makes corny ethanol look even dumber than it already looks.

On the other hand, if NG prices are only temporarily low or NG extraction has unacceptable environmental consequences, then promoters of more expensive alternatives – and seekers of subsidies for more expensive alternatives – have a better case to make. The energy competition doesn't like natural gas – especially abundant, cheap, accessible natural gas. It is highly disruptive to their plans.

The New York Times has run a series of articles hostile to natural gas, one of them, by Ian Urbina who also wrote today's article which is quoted above, was so badly done that it drew a rebuke from their own public editor. The NYT editorial policy has been highly in favor of continued subsidies and mandates for "renewable" – i.e. currently uneconomic wind and solar. Their news judgment seems warped by the threat NG poses to any conceivable argument for deploying technologies which are not yet ready for the market place, which drive up the price of electricity, and which don't directly displace oil.

WSJ is against subsidies for ethanol, wind, and solar (not so clear about nuclear). They have IMHO been pretty evenhanded in covering potential problems with NG even though the AP story they ran was not thorough. Today's edition, for example, gives prominence to an SEC investigation of disclosure of risks associated with fracking for natural gas: "SEC Bears Down on Fracking".

It is of huge consequence to national policy to determine how much domestic natural gas can boost our economy, reduce dependence on foreign oil, create jobs not just in extraction but in energy-dependent industries, and lower emissions of many kinds. We need the best reporting we can get. We must all remain skeptical and keep asking ourselves "what vested interest does this story serve?"

Related posts:

Energy for Jobs – Vermont Version

How to Increase Your Electric Bill to $630 per Month

Natural Gas Disrupts the Energy Industry

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