Natural Gas: The Answer to Nation’s Future Energy Needs

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Natural gas is assuming the lead as the logical answer for energy needs in the United States for the next 50 to 100 years. It has replaced coal as the primary source of generating electricity in power plants because it burns cleaner, produces less greenhouse gases, and is in abundant supply within the country’s borders. Energy industry experts, public officials and environmentalists are promoting natural gas’ benefits because they see it as a bridge fuel between the country’s reliance on coal and renewable energy technologies that will take years to advance to scale as an energy solution.

In June 2010, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology released a study* that supported natural gas as the answer to the country’s energy needs. The two-year study projected federal energy policy and greenhouse gas standards, supply, cost and needs for the next several decades; and, it concluded that natural gas met those parameters as a short-term solution, being more beneficial than the greenhouse gas emissions of coal or the currently prohibitive cost of large-scale renewable energy projects.

The momentum behind natural gas as an energy solution took hold when drilling technologies allowed natural gas to be harvested from vast shale deposits that lie beneath 23 states, including large portions of Texas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York and Ohio. This method, called hydraulic fracturing, injects liquids horizontally at a high speed and releases natural gas trapped within cavities in the shale. Recent estimates from the natural gas industry state that there is enough natural gas in these deposits – approximately 842 trillion cubic feet – to provide an energy solution in this country for 40 years or more.

Natural gas’ property as the cleanest-burning fossil fuel, producing less than half of the carbon emissions of coal, provides added emphasis to its importance as a bridge fuel. Consequently, electricity providers have used that attribute as one justification for making the investment to switch from coal- to natural gasburning power plants. Two recent examples in Virginia and Ohio highlight this movement. Dominion Virginia Power applied in March of 2010 to build a natural gas-fueled, 580-megawat power station in Buckingham County. In Ohio, American Electric Power committed to a natural gas-burning plant near Dresden.

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The Future of Natural Gas is comprehensive study of the future of natural gas conducted by an MIT study group comprised of 30 MIT faculty members, researchers, and graduate students. The findings, summarized in an 83-page report, were presented to lawmakers and senior administration officials this week in Washington.