Natural Gas Realities – Now


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There is currently much “buzz” about methane releases from Natural Gas Exploration & Production (NG E&P), especially with regards to the buzzword friendly “Fracking” dominating all discussions. The NG industry is clearly “green washing” the public through slick advertisements, as it knocks off its primary competitor Coal, and has already surpassed Nuclear for electrical output in the US.

Historical generation of electricity in the USA, 1949 to 2011.  Source U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) via Wikipedia
Historical generation of electricity in the USA, 1949 to 2011. Source U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) via Wikipedia

The fact of the matter is, there are currently NG “Peaker” plants associated with almost all existing Coal and Nuclear plants, often on the same properties, owned and operated by the same generation company. This is really no different than many of our most famous hydroelectric dams being built with coal plants just out of view of the sweeping and magnificent concrete arches. Glen Canyon Dam, on the mighty Colorado River, and the 2,225 MW Navajo Generation Plant were paired in construction under the CRSP (Colorado River Storage Project) to mitigate water storage requirement priority over hydroelectric generation.

My use of the word “competitor”, when we discuss Natural Gas in contrast to Nuclear or Coal, becomes very much a gray area once we dig into the numbers of overall electrical production. But back to the topic of methane releases.

I honestly have to wonder and question the reality of the actual methane released from NG E&P in contrast to what “buzz” friendly discussions state the severity of the situation to be.

How were the quantities of “fugitive” methane gas determine? From a few “example” sites, where responsible and bad players alike were studied? Or do the numbers arise from only those sites that had obvious problems? Subsequently, were these numbers then just applied across the board to the tens of thousands of NG wells drilled and hydraulically fractured already? My inherent need to examine the numbers presented, force me to remember the common phrase, “Garbage in, results in garbage out.” This is not because I am looking for wiggle room and loopholes to circumvent the issue, rather we all need to know the extent of the problem, not just what either side wants us to think it is.

To be honest, I am not giving NG a free pass. I’m constantly challenging proponents of increased Natural Gas E&P and global NG reliance, as well as the general O&G proponents championing oil production in the United States which will soon exceed global leaders, Saudi Arabia and Russia. My grounds for challenging the O&G frenzy is the resultant absurdity, where it has become “economical” to waste enormous quantities of natural gas in the US through purposeful flaring. The current situation in the United States is making pre-LNG capable Nigeria look like an amateur arsonist with a lighter standing next to an Apollo rocket at liftoff.

Thus, I likewise have to question the modeled methane releases as being reported and carried uniformly across the board in these growing discussion. Do we even know the true numbers? Are we capable of accurately measure the releases? It is one thing to model the methane releases from an artificially constructed, capped or uncapped landfill; however, it is an entirely different thing applying an uniform value across a reality where no two wellheads and the geologic formations below them are the same. Each unique to itself, like I am to you and every other person in this world.

Out looking for the Milky Way, light pollution from flaring obscures all stars.  This is not Nigeria, this is just outside Denver, Colorado, where just this year, both the State & global O&G players worked together to reduce
Out looking for the Milky Way, light pollution from flaring obscures all but the brightest stars in this 10 second exposure. This is not Nigeria, this is just outside Denver, Colorado, where just this year, both the State & global O&G players operating here worked together to reduce “fugitive” methane releases.

I would hope readers do not view me as blindly shilling for NG, but Fracking has become no less a buzzword than Keystone XL. All rationality and logic evaporate from the discussions as the elephant in the room, human experience and emotion, are revealed and then take center stage. Hard science, economic considerations, factual basis from which to debate, and physical reality are all escorted out of the room as the elephant[s] trample the meeting room.

Methane release is indeed a serious concern, but given number of wells hydraulically fractured already, with no way to ‘plug’ them, are we already past a point of no return if we uniformly carry these numbers over? Fracking, right or wrong, is not slowing down in the US anyways, and there are tens of thousands of new wells waiting to be drilled. This does not even count the existing wells in tight and non-conventional formations where production has dropped, requiring workover to access trapped resources.

Also, the global production and supply markets are increasing for natural gas, notably LNG every day, be it for transportation, electrical production, industrial manufacturing or residential and commercial uses. In the United States, NG fired electricity generation has already surpassed Nuclear in annual output. It is set to exceed coal in 5 to 10 years, maybe less if the trend and projections are correct. Even just today (August 4th), the US Energy Information Agency (EIA) tweeted “Massachusetts generated 63% of its electricity from [natural gas] in 2013.”

This does not even include projections for the under developed and developing world, where it well accepted the demand for energy, notably electricity is enormous. The population in Africa nearly equal to China alone.

I guess what I am trying to point out, that questioning the ‘cleanness’ of NG is almost irrelevant and futile. If a beach washes away during a hurricane, do we question how many individual grains of sand were lost or whether it was a riptide or the storm surge that destroyed it? No, because the answers cannot be ascertained with any level of specificity, and at that point, does it matter? Natural Gas is already here, it has arrived like the leading edge of the tidal surge and all indications say it will be part of our energy picture for a long time to come. The real question seems to be, not “How high the surge will rise?” To the contrary, we need to ask ourselves “How far does the low land extend?”

As such, I almost need to unequivocally advocate for NG given it is the only readily available fossil fuel we have that can fill so many specific needs of our collective energy requirements. It is the only fossil fuel we have that can provide for stability and reliability of small regional electrical grids in the developing world, where the potential to build out Wind and “Solar” (photo voltaic) is practically infinite.

These two Renewable Energy (RE) options cannot supply the demand of any “system” of scale, i.e., a city or manufacturing center, alone. Likewise, batteries, either current technology or proposed “revolutionary game changers” are not viable options due to simple economics and the quantities that would be required. Any permutation of the above components, given the daily and seasonal variability of any geographic location, does not allow for constant reliability. Consistent supply of electricity, even enough to supply a small village, is needed for real development to happen.

History is not being taken into account, yet large hydro pushed as
History is not being taken into account, yet large hydro pushed as “renewable” is forcing massive debt on developing countries while stalling development for years during construction. Source, International Rivers (www.InternationalRivers.org)

Unreliable electricity production has plagued most of Africa for decades. NG Peaker plants, ranging from 50 to 200 MW, can be producing their first watt of electricity in roughly two years, or shipped in on floating barges even faster. They can also be cycled on and off within minutes to responsively meet fluctuating demand; allowing commercial, industrial and residential consumers to develop alongside new and continually expanding PV “plants” (partial to multiple MW peak capacity) and Wind Farms that require on demand backup.

Large hydro cannot do this, but the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, China’s economic might in Africa, and the new upstart BRICS, all are advocating for massive, long build time, enormous debt load projects around the world.  It is even focus on the current “US-Africa” summit in Washington, D.C… I’ll write about large hydro history at another time.

Natural Gas is becoming increasingly portable; pipelines are no longer required to connect source to market. The world over is expanding the quantity of Liquid NG compression and export facilities; the United Arab Emirates, Mozambique, Australia, and Nigeria to name a few. Likewise, NG importers are constructing regasification terminals, allowing the LNG to expand into Compressed NG (CNG) and enter pipeline midstream and downstream infrastructure. Japan, in the wake of the tsunami and subsequent Fukushima nuclear incident, as well as the world’s largest importer of LNG; and Europe, in light of mounting tension with Russia and their pipeline connections to supplies not only from Russia, but also the Middle East and North Africa, are expanding LNG importation facilities.

One of two LNG import facilities in Lake Sabine, LA/TX slated for conversion to CNG liquification to LNG export operations.
One of two LNG import facilities, with four “Peakers” visible to the left, in Lake Sabine, LA/TX slated for conversion to CNG liquification to LNG export operations.

And then there is the United States; who prior to the US Shale Gas boom spent billions building land based Regasification facilities, not only along the CNG pipeline bottle-necked East and West Coasts, but also on the Gulf Coast as well. On a time frame measurable by modern supertankers crossing the Pacific, domestic NG prices plummeted just as the first shipments were received at the recently completed facilities. Most storage and regasification units sat on their more expensive, contracted LNG reserves, only allowing natural “boil off” to enter the midstream pipelines, waiting for a rise in domestic NG prices that never came. Currently, all facilities are in permitting or just breaking ground to re-purpose for export of LNG. The implications of the energy required to compress CNG to LNG and costs to undertake the facilities conversions themselves, requires a post of its own.

Regardless the cost and energy requirements to make Natural Gas portable around the globe, LNG is also bridging the instability gaps on a regional level. Just review the history and never ending saga of the West African [CG] Pipeline. Even miles offshore and subsea, it has proven its inability to distribute locally sourced wealth with adjacent neighbors, constantly being sabotaged and its construction itself was riddled with delay and the effects of generalized instability. As problematic as it is, Nigeria is reducing its NG flaring, not necessarily through supplying itself or its neighbors’ much need demands, rather domestic and regional instability forced its hand in exporting more as LNG. Sure there is an “imperialistic invaders robbing Africa blind” component, but that is not the full picture either.

Indonesia's efforts at supplying natural gas needs to its earthquake prone
Indonesia’s efforts at supplying natural gas needs to its earthquake prone “island states”. The north end of Sumatra has long supplied NG to the world, this FSRU is at the south end of the island, nearing operational status in May of 2014.

I was recently in Indonesia on a project (more complex than i can about write here) but they are building offshore terminals for FSRUs (Floating Ship Regasification Units) connected by subsea pipelines to fuel small CNG infrastructure systems regionally in South Sumatra. This is in stark contrast to costly and potentially dangerous pipelines running from the gas fields in the northern end of the island. West Java is booming, the scale of the projects I read about while there is mind boggling. But at present, it is primarily supplied by Coal, just as is Jakarta a hundred miles to the east, and at the end of the massive transmission lines.

One of many transmission towers from Indonesia's Coal fired plants on the western end of Java, running towards Jakarta to the east.
One of many transmission towers from Indonesia’s Coal fired plants on the western end of Java, running towards Jakarta to the east.

I am not professing to know the answers or the solutions, but there is a reality to Natural Gas’s presence that cuts across all “What-if…?” scenarios and ‘We need to do something now.’ sentiments.

Call Natural Gas a monster if you like, but it is the collective monster we have built through our own demands, each and every one of us.  Regardless what we are doing now to reduce our carbon footprint, we all arrived where we are through a system we have agreed to and our own reliance on a fossil fuel to feed our needs.  Installing a PV system on our house today, may never recoup the carbon we have each released through our lifetimes.  There is no, “I’m better than you because I can see the hole we’ve dug for ourselves. while you just continue to dig.”  There is no escape from our collective hole, we will all need to start filling the abyss in, shovel full by shovel full, raising us all inch by inch, so we can all leave together, even those who can’t or won’t accept where we are.

I recently heard a tale about a burro that was trapped in a well.  Had his master filled the well with one massive effort, the burro would have been buried alive.  Instead, the master added dirt shovel after shovel, allowing the burro to step up on new dirt as it was thrown in.  Eventually, the burro was able to walk out of well on his own, and thus was rescued.

We all could learn a lot from this story, burying those that don’t think the same as you will not get us anywhere, and there is no master up top looking down using his brain to figure out how to save us by not killing us in the process.  We can do this, but we all have to work together towards a common goal.

Cheers all, I’ll be on a plane shortly to Europe and 3 months of traveling simply and reporting back what I see and experience, especially as it pertains to energy.

Follow or connect with me, through any of the following links.  Please share as well, I would greatly appreciate it. 🙂

LinkedIn – Hans Hyde
Instagram – Hans World Travels
Twitter – HansWorldTravls

And if you feel you could assist me in seeing Europe’s energy projects first hand, I would be enormously grateful and excited to boot!

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