Although it rocked the industry, the recent New York Times series claiming that estimates of American domestic natural gas supply are overblown may itself have been overblown.
Two expert witnesses at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources this morning said their organizations had independently found the facts to be different than what was reported in theTimes article. Natural gas, they both said, is abundant, cheap and an energy game changer that is poised to replace coal-fired plants for electrical generation.
Early discussion on broader natural gas issues soon focused on the news coverage of the industry’s reserve estimate. The Times did not respond to Breaking Energy calls for a response to the hearing.
Acting Administrator of the government Energy Information Administration (EIA) Dr. Howard Gruenspecht and Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Dr. Ernest Moniz, co-director of the MIT Coal Study, which just recently published a report on natural gas, The Future of Natural Gas, both said the New York Times data did not match their own.
“That article did not reflect all the information,” Gruenspecht told the committee. “I can’t tell you that the EIA is 100% right but we do pride ourselves with being transparent and we did provide [the New York Times] with e-mails.”
Gruenspecht said that the e-mails and other data provided to the Times by the EIA show that natural gas already accounts for 25% of American energy use and will only continue to grow.
“EIA projects the total [US] natural gas production will grow by 26% between 2009 and 2035,” he said. He added that costs may rise as production moves from obvious easily-accessible shales to more remote areas, but he noted that extraction technology may simultaneously improve in the coming years to keep prices down.
Moniz emphasized that he began research for the natural gas study three years ago with a fully open mind. He was not sure at first whether natural gas was part of the problem or the solution, he said, but after collecting the evidence from various sources he is convinced that although hydraulic fracturing should be tightly regulated to prevent adverse impacts on the environment, electricity from natural gas is cleaner and cheaper than oil or coal-power and could help the country slowly transition to cleaner power generation.
Moniz suggested a joint Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency study on the use of various chemicals in the “fracking” process and a joint effort to protect the environment while helping the country utilize an incredible source of domestic power.
In his opening remarks, chairman of the committee Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) noted that environmental impacts were a major concern in the development of natural gas assets. He noted that issues like groundwater contamination and waste water management were critical.
“Domestic natural gas resources are changing the game,” he said, but “recent history suggests we should be cautious as well.”
Moniz agreed that environmental issues were top priority but said that natural gas may actually help lead the way to a cleaner energy future.
“We consider these environmental issues quite challenging but manageable,” Moniz said. He added that he would support using natural gas for electrical power generation and also as fuel for cars and trucks because it may be the best option available. Retrofitting coal plants with scrubbers to reduce emissions–a widely touted solution for complying with current emissions regulations–is way more expensive than its worth, he said.
“I think we all understand that the economics of a retrofit don’t make any sense,” Moniz said. “You could probably build a new natural gas plants for less money than installing scrubbers” in “old inefficient coal plants” that might be over 30 years old.
Various senators pressed the two witnesses on the New York Times article, claiming that it was paramount for the country to be able to depend on the EIA for accurate, impartial facts.
“We rely on EIA for energy information,” said Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) in her opening question which sparked the conversation on the New York Times series.