THE WORLD is in the midst of a natural gas revolution. Even the sober International Energy Agency refers to a scenario it calls a “golden age of gas”.
If such optimism proves right, the implications would not only be far greater than those of the euro zone’s painful dissolution, but would also be economically positive.
Never forget that ours is a civilisation built on cheap supplies of commercial energy. The economic rise of emerging countries is bound to make the demand for commercial energy increase dramatically in the decades ahead. Gas matters.
This revolution has a name: hydraulic fracturing, colloquially known as hydrofracking or just fracking.
As is true of nearly all of the technological revolutions of the past century, this one also originated in the United States. The US Energy Information Administration explains that “the use of horizontal drilling in conjunction with hydraulic fracturing has greatly expanded the ability of producers to produce natural gas from low permeability geologic formations, particularly shale formations”.*
While some innovations date to the 1970s, the administration notes that “the advent of large-scale shale gas production did not occur until Mitchell Energy and Development experimented during the 1980s and 1990s to make deep shale gas production a commercial reality in the Barnett Shale in north central Texas”.
But, by now, it adds, “the development of shale gas has become a ‘game changer’ for the US natural gas market”.
The new activity has increased dry shale gas production in the US from 390 billion cubic feet in 2000 to 4.8 trillion cubic feet in 2010, or 23 per cent of US dry gas production. Vastly more is to come. The administration estimates 860 trillion cubic feet of “technically recoverable” US shale gas against just 273 trillion cubic feet in today’s “proved reserves”.
If this estimate is correct, shale gas on its own would give the US 40 years of gas consumption, at current rates.
How large are the world’s shale gas reserves? The administration asked consultants to examine 48 shale gas basins in 32 countries. Their report estimates “technically recoverable” global shale gas resources at 6,600 trillion cubic feet, roughly equal to today’s proved reserves.
The largest identified resources, apart from those of the US, are in China (1,275 trillion cubic feet), Argentina (774 trillion), Mexico (681 trillion) South Africa (485 trillion), Canada (388 trillion), Libya (290 trillion), Algeria (231 trillion), Brazil (226 trillion), Poland (187 trillion) and France (180 trillion).
Regions excluded from this analysis include Russia, central Asia, the Middle East, south-east Asia and central Africa. Global potential should be far larger still.
What difference might the abundance of natural gas (including of more conventional gas) make to the global energy future?
In its World Energy Outlook 2011 , the IEA remarks that “in all the scenarios examined natural gas has a higher share of the global energy mix in 2035 than it does today”.
Under its “golden age” scenario, gas demand grows by 2 per cent a year between 2009 and 2035.
Even under a more cautious scenario, which it calls “new policies”, demand grows at 1.7 per cent a year or by a total of 55 per cent over this period.
As a result, gas substitutes for other fuels, particularly in electricity generation and heating. Gas also has substantial potential as a fuel for transportation. Overall, argues BP in its latest Energy Outlook, by 2030 gas might come to rival coal and oil as a primary energy source.