Big Impact: How Shale Changes The Role Of Natural Gas

Because natural gas produces less than half the carbon emissions of other fossil fuels and little or none of harmful pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and soot, increasing its use for power generation could immediately reduce the nation’s carbon footprint. In addition, natural gas loses comparatively little energy throughout its wellhead-to-burnertip life cycle, making it a highly efficient form of electricity generation.

In the 1990s, as regional and national concerns about air quality gained traction in the U.S., the cleanliness and efficiency of natural gas enabled power generators to build more natural gas-fired combined cycle plants. The Environmental Protection Agency credited natural gas with helping meet the nation’s first goal for air quality improvement standards. While satisfying air concerns, this build-out of gas-fired capacity began to create another concern in late-2000, when rising demand for natural gas started to impact prices.

In the latter part of the decade, the arrival of abundant, domestic shale gas resulted in a changed supply-demand dynamic from that of the early 2000s, positioning natural gas as a sustainable and responsible choice for meeting climate objectives. In a recent report, the Congressional Research Service said about one-third of existing coal-fired generation could be displaced by existing gas combined-cycle plants.  The report showed gas to be currently underutilized: despite the fact that natural gas-fired electric capacity accounts for the largest share of the national generating fleet at 39 percent, the report said it trails behind coal-fired generation as a source of actual generation, with gas at 21 percent and coal at 49 percent. Natural gas, particularly from shale, has room to grow.