Modeling results in the MIT Future of Natural Gas Study released in June of last year suggested that the US could make major progress in the next two decades towards achieving a 50% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050 – a real reduction, no offsets or other creative and questionable mechanisms –largely through two actions: reduced energy consumption, and switching from coal to natural gas in power generation.

The study also concluded that simply by utilizing surplus Natural Gas Combined Cycle capacity from existing units in lieu of coal generation, the US could achieve a 20% reduction in CO2 emissions from the power sector and even greater reductions in mercury and NOx emissions. The study concluded that this was the only near-term practical option for achieving large-scale CO2 emissions reductions from the power sector and that, relative to other options, it was low cost at $16/ton.

Further, the study recommended support for a flex fuel vehicle standard, which would require vehicles that could run on methanol, ethanol or gasoline. While the CO2 benefits would be minimal, energy security would be enhanced by creating significant opportunities for fuel arbitrage.

These environmental and energy security benefits cannot be achieved without significant development of affordable and reliable US natural gas resources, especially shale gas. The environmental and community impacts of shale gas development and the controversies surrounding its production and the associated fugitive methane emissions, however, could impede this development.

These concerns have created a wide chasm between gas producers and the environmental community—both sides have dug in on their positions, and advocates appear to be in control of the dialogue and the “facts”. Additional controversy has been raised by EPA’s new inventories of methane emissions from gas production and systems, which are double previous estimates.

These debates raise many key issues and questions as we discuss the future energy policy of the U.S.

  • What is an appropriate balance between the CO2, criteria pollutant, and energy security benefits (with global implications) associated with increased use of natural gas, and the more localized environmental (primarily water) and community impacts of shale development?
  • Can we ensure adequate protection of groundwater resources in the shale gas production process?
  • What are appropriate regulatory regimes for managing these issues?
  • Is the major increase in EPA’s estimates of methane emissions from gas production accurate and, if so, does it greatly diminish the greenhouse gas emissions benefits associated with switching from coal to gas-fired generation?
  • What technologies can help mitigate these impacts? How do we ensure unbiased, technically based information when analyzing these issues and policy options?
  • And what can policymakers, industry and environmental advocates do, if anything, to resolve these issues in ways that balance our energy needs and environmental needs?

The answers to these questions are important, not just for the U.S. but for the world. There are significant global shale gas resources, many of them in countries and regions that lack indigenous conventional gas resources. The rest of the world is watching how the U.S. resolves these issues. Your thoughts and views may help delineate a clearer and cleaner path forward on the role of natural gas in the U.S. and around the world.