Recently, I’ve had two conversations about natural gas that have worried me greatly.
The first was with a friend who spent upwards of $15,000 to connect natural gas to his home. The gas is cheap, he said, and so cheap that it should pay for itself in savings within a few years. The second conversation was with my father, who is also strongly considering the switch.
Natural gas provides an appealing energy alternative in these tough financial times. The current price is about one-seventh of its high several years ago. This is the result of long- and short-term factors.
In the short term, the recession pushed down energy prices, yet the commodities markets and global political unrest kept crude oil prices around where they have been. The longer-term factor is that natural gas companies are now using a new method of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” to get to a supply of natural gas previously deemed untouchable.
Yet the price won’t stay this low. Eventually the markets will correct, the increased demand for gas will raise prices, we will probably find substantially less gas than we are led to believe exists and environmental hazards will seriously harm production.
Fracking is still very questionable and in the past couple of years it has driven prices down dramatically by supplying almost a third of natural gas used in this country. According to a recent study by Duke University scientists, this method of extraction is almost certainly poisoning groundwater. The group tested drinking water wells in Pennsylvania and New York and found 17 times as much methane in wells closer to fracking sites. In some cases homes blew up after this gas seeped into basements and in several drinking water wells scientists were actually able to light the well water on fire.
As part of shale natural gas extraction companies pump a crude sludge into their drill sites. Though drilling companies reassure the public, environmentalists fear the chemicals may leach through the rock. Additionally, some seismologists are concerned that drilling wells so deep through the shale may activate long-dormant fault lines and tectonic plates, increasing the number of and severity of earthquakes.
It’s common for gas and drilling companies to say that we have 100 years of shale gas in the U.S. This figure was first given in early 2011 by the Potential Gas Committee, a pro-gas group. The group estimates a future gas supply of about 2,170 trillion cubic feet, which at 2010 usage would last about 95 years. Only about 12 percent of that is absolutely proven reserves.
What that means is that we only have about 10 years of proven gas reserves in this country, a number that will drop dramatically as more people switch to gas. Yet even if we have 50 years worth, once the environmental hazards become better known there will almost certainly be a lengthy review of the process that will lead to much higher prices.
Even with all of these concerns, wells are being dug all over a good part of our country. This kind of gas extraction has become big business all over New York, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Wyoming and parts of Texas, just to name a few. Many large coal power plants are being refitted to handle natural gas.
Here in Maine, Gov. Paul LePage has met with gas companies about building a gas pipeline from Richmond to Skowhegan and a new gas-fired power plant.
Before switching over or deciding that natural gas offers a magically cheap energy source that will stay that way, we all need to take into account the larger perspective. The price will surely go up and the environmental risk is too great. The only answers are renewable energy sources that are stable — sources such as solar, wind and hydro power.
Fortunately Maine is perfectly positioned to be a leader in all three areas. Let’s not blow our advantage by focusing on an energy that may not exist in two decades.
Timothy Rich is a candidate for the Maine House of Representatives in District 35 and the owner of The Independent Cafe in Bar Harbor. He has been a certified energy auditor and has studied energy issues extensively. He lives on Mount Desert Island.