My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.
AS THE CONTROVERSY AROUND the documentary Gasland 2010 continues, you might appreciate some context to the arguments about natural gas reserves. (If you don’t think it’s important – that’s even more reason to take 120 seconds to read about it.
In January 2011, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that the world may have twice as much natural gas than previously estimated. (Read here.) A spokesperson gushed: “The resources are really huge. We probably have 920 trillion cubic metres – that is more than 300 times the current annual demand for gas.”
Curiously, this joyous news was released just days after the IEA had admitted for the first time that global production of conventional crude oil peaked in 2006 and has been declining every since Read here).
The message was clear – plenty of energy, no looming crisis, business can and will grow as usual. If economies can’tt grow because of energy constraints, try to imagine, for example, how you’ll pay the interest on your mortgage or how overpriced the share prices are on all the stock markets in the world – because company evaluations presume the never ending expansion of business.
Back to natural gas supplies. Having watched professor Bartlett’s excellent lecture on exponential growth (see here on YouTube), and having studied peak oil and global energy supplies and consumption, I was extremely sceptical of what the IEA being promising. So I’ve done some checking.
I looked at natural gas supplies and consumption in America. Much of the reported new reserves, and the technology to extract the gas, is in America; and the country remains, for now at least, the number one consumer of energy on the planet (despite having only 3% of the population).
WARNING: Looking at the numbers with some context – rather than just seeing a number in a reassuring headline – may startle you. Please note – I am not attempting to forecast anything. Rather, the point is to probe a little deeper than did, for example, the BBC in reporting the world had enough natural ghas for 250 years.
According to the IEA, the US has PROVEN reserves of natural gas of 211.09 trillion cubic feet. That’s enough, at present consumption for just TEN YEARS.
However, the totally different numbers quoted in headlines – such as the BBC – include all the natural gas that might be produced with the new technology of “fracking” – the contraversial technology explored in Gasland 2010. This number is for UNPROVEN and UNDISCOVERED natural gas – 1536.38 trillion cubic feet. IF all that gas exists and IF 100% is recoverable (even under urban areas?) it would be the equivalent of 350 billion barrels of oil, more oil than Saudi Arabia. Theoretically enough for 67 years, at current consumption.
But even if you take that figure – representing the gas industry’s most optimistic daydream – the numbers hide a much starker situation.
Let’s look at this in more detail.
CURRENT US ANNUAL CONSUMPTION
|Electricity generation (23.3% of total)||6.87 trillion cubic feet per year|
|Industry (incl fertilizer for agriculture)||6.17 trillion cubic feet per year|
|Residential||4.78 trillion cubic feet per year|
|Commercial (shops, hotels etc)||3.12 trillion cubic feet per year|
|Lease & plant (ie. extracting the gas)||1.28 trillion cubic feet per year|
|Pipelines (transporting gas to consumers)||0.60 trillion per year|
|Vehicles||0.29 trillion per year|
|TOTAL consumption per year||23.11 trillion cubic feet per year|
|TOTAL reserves & unproven and undiscovered resources||1747.47 trillion cubic feet|
|Years of supply with 100% recovery at CURRENT usage||75.61 years|
Looks like there’s plenty of clean burning natural gas. Problem solved.
But what would happen if:
1) Coal-fired power stations switched to burn natural gas?
|% of electricity from coal-fired plants||44.80%|
2) All vehicles converted to run on natural gas (given that conventional oil production is declining)?
In the summer of 2009, Robert Rapier posted an article on the Oil Drum (read here) in which he crunched the numbers to see how much natural gas would it take if all the vehicles in America were converted to run on natural gas. (A conversion job that which is said to currently cost an amazing $10,000 per vehicle.)
|All US vehicles running natural gas (not oil)||39.40 trillion cubic feet per year|
If 1) and 2) happened (this is theoretical just as the number of “unproven and undiscovered reserves” is theoretical. The purpose is to get some sense of the orders of magnitude and the context of energy supply and consumption. Saying natural gas will last 250 years is meaningless and wilfully dangerous.
|(1) if gas replaced coal-fired power plants||13.2 trillion cubic feet per year EXTRA|
|(2) if all vehicles ran on natural gas||39.4 trillion cubic feet per year EXTRA|
|Current natural gas consumption||23.11 trillion cubic feet per year|
|Total ALL natural gas usage (current + EXTRA)||75.71 trillion cubic feet per year|
|Total ALL natural gas reserves & unproven and undiscovered resources||1747.47 trillion cubic feet|
|Years of supply||23.08 years|
Little more than two decades even in the BEST CASE SCENARIO
Of course, natural gas consumption is not static; hot or cold weather, economic activity, and improved efficiencies are just three of the factor which can affect consumption. The long-term trend of natural consumption is up by about 1.9% per year. Doesn’t sound much. What effect does it have on long-term consumption?
|Theoretical ALL consumption year 1||75.71|
|Rate of growth per year||1.90%|
|Per year consumption at end of 10 years||91.38|
|Total consumption after 10 years||840.89 trillion cubic feet per year|
|Remaining reserves (1747.47 – 840.89)||906.58 trillion cubic feet per year|
|Years of supplyremaining in 10th year||9.9 years supply remaining|
Again, I am not trying to predict anything. All vehicles will never be converted to run on natural gas. Natural gas will not replace all the current electricity supplied from coal-fired plants. In the real world many other factors will come into play.
My point is that even a cursory investigation of the numbers in the best of all possible worlds demonstrates how the headlines promising a bountiful future are wildly complacent and dangerously misleading.