More Research Needed to Expand Use of Natural Gas, Says MIT Report

A Massachusetts Institue of Technology report last week that suggested the United States can use its abundant supply of natural gas to move to a low-carbon economy contained a caveat that many media accounts ignored: Making such a transition will require a significant boost in federally funded research. The authors say that we need better ways to estimate how much gas is in the ground and how much of it can be extracted, along with reducing the environmental impact of certain extraction practices.

"There's a lot to be done to develop a holistic understanding [of natural gas]. We need a better understanding of unconventional resources like shale," says Anthony Meggs, visiting engineer at MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) in Cambridge and a co-author of the report.

The report predicts that the 2000 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas in the United States—equivalent to a 92-year supply under current consumption rates—will increasingly contribute to generating electricity over the next 40 years and that unconventional resources like shale will be a primary reason for that growth. It's the third and latest report in a series by MIT scientists aimed at analyzing the competitiveness of energy sources under carbon dioxide emissions constraints. The report was funded largely by the American Clean Skies Foundation, a nonprofit organization created and funded largely by the natural gas industry.

Determining how much natural gas there is and where that gas is located is fundamental to progress, according to Meggs. Although globally distributed, natural gas is an untapped resource in many countries, with only 10% of the conventional reservoirs around the world having been utilized. There are many locations in which no wells have been drilled. The report proposes research on developing new technologies to measure the global reserves, currently estimated at 8000 trillion cubic feet.

Once conventional and unconventional reservoirs are accounted for, the next step is to figure out how much gas can actually be produced, says Henry Jacoby, co-director of MIT's Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and another co-author to the study. Currently, the quality of unconventional natural gas resources is uncertain. Several shale basins have never yielded natural gas, and the productivity of others is difficult to predict.

Figuring out what's going on a smaller scale could help with the big picture, too, says Meggs. Although the report does not recommend a specific level of investment, Meggs suggests that a $50-million-a-year basic research program, supported by the government or industry, could help to characterize what makes shale producible. Basic research is only part of the answer, adds Ernest Moniz, director of MITEI. He would like to see industry, states, and the federal government contribute $250 million yearly for basic and applied research to spur the development of new technologies, such as turbo charging and smaller engines, to improve the efficiency of extracting gas from shale.

In addition to making the process faster and cheaper, scientists hope to reduce the environmental cost of producing more natural gas. Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracing," works by injecting as much as 10 million gallons of fluid into the rock and then introducing grains of sand or some other particulate to hold the fractures open. Up to half of the water can come back to surface, however, posing the risk of extensive contamination.

To solve the problem of contamination, Moniz proposes new water-disposal facilities and the disclosure by companies of what hydraulic fluids they're using. The report recommends a basic research initiative at the Department of Energy along with an industry-financed program to reduce water used in fracturing.