This blog chronicles and analyzes developments in the Upper Delaware Valley, with an emphasis on public affairs, politics and what people are doing to make this a better place. You can find news here as well as commentary - but don't expect neutrality. The award-winning editorial writer for The River Reporter from 2004 to 2012, I am an advocate for sustainability, self-sufficient economic growth vs. globalization and protecting the environment on which our health, prosperity and quality of life depend.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

What they'd be doing if they really thought it was a bridge

I have a concession to make. I think we need natural gas as a bridge fuel. But what I find infuriating is that the people in government and industry who say that we need natural gas as a bridge fuel don’t behave remotely as though they really believe it. They behave as though it’s a resource that we should use as exhaustively as possible for as long as possible.

I think we need natural gas as a bridge fuel in the sense that right today, if we completely stopped using fossil fuels in general and natural gas in particular, we would not be able to supply the planet’s human population with even its most minimal needs. But if you think it’s a bridge, then you should be formulating a plan, with a specific timeline and quantitative goals, according to which fossil fuels, including natural gas, will be phased out, and conservation measures and alternative energy sources phased in.

Instead, we hear people talk about how many hundreds of years of natural gas they think we have. We hear them talk about how, after they’ve finished draining the Marcellus dry, they can access the Utica shale. We hear them planning long-term retooling of various industries to use natural gas.

That’s not bridge thinking. That’s a “we can keep on doing this forever” fantasy.

Here’s what bridge thinking would look like:

  1. Project the nation’s energy needs out to some date, no later than, say, 2050, on the basis of current trajectories of demographics and usage patterns.
  2. Look at conservation measures that we know to be currently available, and set out a series of deadlines and goals for implementing these as broadly and completely as possible, out until 2050.  If there’s a quantitatively respectable way to estimate additional conservation savings that might be incurred due to the impact of innovations not yet known, add that in too.
  3. Recalculate the nation’s energy needs, assuming that the conservation goals are met.
  4. Set your ultimate phase-out targets: e.g., by 2050, no more than 5% of our energy needs should be met by natural gas (that doesn’t have to be the number – but if you really think it’s a bridge, that number had better be pretty small). Develop an annual schedule of how much the percentage of usage satisfied by natural gas would have to decline between now and 2050 to meet that goal.
  5. Applying the percentages from step 4 to the nation’s total energy needs established in step 3, figure out how many mcf of gas will have to be produced each year to meet your phase-out goals.
  6. Calculate how many wells should be operating, year by year, in order to produce the natural gas set in step 5 – which obviously at some point in the not-too-distant future would have to start diminishing.
  7. Take a look at the environmental sensitivity, productivity of wells and costs of drilling in various areas, determine where it makes sense to drill between now and 2050, and where it does not, and develop an optimum schedule and map of such drilling activity.
Obviously, a similar series of steps should also be taken not only for other fossil fuels, in terms of phasing them out, but for various alternative energy sources, in terms of phasing them in.

When and if President Obama, other politicians like Governors Corbett and Cuomo, or the various industry cheerleaders present a plan like this, and make an effort to actually implement it, I will also listen respectfully to talk about needing natural gas as a bridge fuel.

But as it is, the people who throw around the phrase “bridge fuel” are mostly just talking out of both sides of their mouths.

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