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Know the West

Obama praises natural gas, but is there enough to satisfy U.S. demand?


Poor President Obama. On Jan. 24, he delivered a State of the Union speech promising "a future where we're in control of our own energy," and packed it with something for nearly everyone -- more oil, safe natural gas and abundant clean energy. And still almost no one went home happy. Domestic oil production is higher than it's been in eight years, but congressional Republicans (and some Western Democrats) only want to carp about the stalled-out Keystone XL pipeline. More large-scale wind and solar is getting built on public land than ever before, with 6,000 megawatts already permitted and another 7,000 -- enough to power 3 million homes -- on the way. But the naysayers just can't let go of the Solyndra scandal.

You can't satisfy all of the people all of the time. But when it comes to our contentious energy future, Obama seems to delight a diminishing few.

Nowhere is Obama's can't-win-for-losing problem more pronounced than in his enthusiasm for natural gas, especially the kind trapped in shale and released by forcing a suspicious brew of slurry deep into the rocks -- a controversial process, as readers of this magazine well know, called hydraulic fracturing. Obama made shale gas the linchpin of U.S. energy security in his speech, touting a domestic supply to last "nearly 100 years." Two days later, he alighted in Las Vegas, Nev., where the United Parcel Service, with the help of various regional partners and $5.6 million in stimulus funds, has built a natural gas fueling station to service trucks along a gasified delivery corridor that extends from Utah to the California coast. In an address there, Obama proposed tax incentives for companies with plans for similar trucks, and later, at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colo., he proclaimed the U.S. "the Saudi Arabia of gas."

None of these speeches were newsworthy as action plans; the Energy Department under Steven Chu has long encouraged natural gas and other alternative-fuel vehicles with grants; bills circulate through Congress extending and expanding tax credits and kickbacks. (The latest comes from Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, who wants to give natural-gas bus buyers a 30 percent rebate.) Obama pitched his arguments at voters in the shale-play states to prove this president is no job-killer: Developing those gas fields could net 600,000 jobs, he said, by the end of the decade.
And yet those same words risked enervating the environmentalist contingent whose enthusiasm helped put this president in office. Was it enough that Obama announced that the Interior Department will soon require companies that drill on public lands to identify the chemicals they use? (The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has already begun writing a chemical-disclosure rule for the gas industry under the Toxic Substances Control Act, to complement laws in several states, including Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Montana and Texas.) Not for the citizens of Pavillion, Wyo., whose water contamination, a recent EPA report cautiously theorized, may well have been caused by Encana Corp.'s gas excavation. Matt Watson, senior energy policy manager with the Environmental Defense Fund, agrees that natural gas has a place in the country's energy supply, but adds, "The plan to require disclosure of hydraulic fracturing fluids on federal leases is only a first step. There's much more that needs to be done to ensure that production happens in ways that don't threaten public health."

Exactly how much more can be done, however, depends on whether Congress has the will to do it. At the start of a recent House subcommittee hearing on the EPA's Pavillion report, Rep. Andy Harris, R.-Md., griped that the president had "proclaimed his support for expanded shale gas production while at the same time allowing every part of his administration -- from the EPA to Interior to the CDC -- to attack these practices through scientific innuendo and regulatory straitjacketing."

Actually, a little more "regulatory straitjacketing" earlier on -- before the word "fracking" became associated with flaming tap water -- might have done the industry good. Most unbiased experts agree that hydraulic fracturing's worst accidents happen whenever the steel-and-cement casing that contains the drilled well and its chemical soup fails. "Every group of grownups that has looked at the issue recognizes that the real problem is related to well construction," says Mark Zoback, a Stanford University geophysicist who specializes in studying fracking's environmental consequences. Zoback and EDF's Fred Krupp both served on an Energy Department advisory board that in November recommended rigorous testing for well-casing integrity and responsible wastewater disposal. It also advised backing up better safety practices with heavy rounds of inspection.

Even with those practices in place, though, natural gas still may not save us -- not because it can't be extracted safely, but because, contrary to Obama's claims, we probably don't have anywhere close to a century's worth. Energy analyst and author Chris Nelder has explained in exacting detail that 100 years of gas is an industry-fed "hallucination." A U.S. Energy Information Administration analysis released the day before the State of the Union cut the 2011 estimate of the nation's "unproved" natural gas supply of 827 trillion cubic feet by almost 42 percent. Following a typical pattern for newly discovered resources, Nelder says, "the euphoria of the initial results has given way to a more sober, much-reduced outlook." The gas we know for sure we have -- 273 trillion cubic feet -- amounts to only 10 or 11 times what the U.S. consumes in a year.

And that's not counting the cars, homes and factories that Obama foresees Americans soon powering "in a cleaner and cheaper way." Even some industrial solar facilities planned for the nation's deserts require an assist from natural gas to start up in the morning, and the people who manage the electricity grid increasingly need gas plants to compensate for renewables' oscillating load.

"When the wind stops or the clouds come over, we need that flexible capacity that can ramp up and ramp down very fast," says Steven Greenlee, spokesman for the California Independent System Operator Corp. Which means that whatever happens, we won't break free of natural gas any time soon. It just may not be the energy nirvana Obama wants us to believe it is.