The New Year celebration for 2020 announces a new decade that will continue and most likely accelerate change in the energy sector of the United States economy. For most of us in western Pennsylvania we will see increase development of the natural gas exploration, production, and transmission. The Shell cracker plant in Beaver County, near Midland will come online increasing the demand of area Marcellus and Utica wet gas (gas with liquid constituents of propane, butane, and ethane). The ethane is the fuel for the Shell plant from which multiple every day and ubiquitous plastic products are derived. Several pipeline projects will be completed increasing the likelihood of liquid natural gas export via large new LNG tankers from exports terminals in Baltimore and Philadelphia. Nearly half the electric power generated in the state will be from natural gas replacing coal as our primary source.
But beyond the Allegheny River valley other dynamics are at play. They are generational, political, social, and urban cultural forces that are seeking definitive, and what some would say is radical, change to the familiar energy infrastructure that seems unchanging for many of us. No matter what ones opinion is the terms now popularized as global warming and/or climate change. There are forces calling for reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, reduced dependence on fossil fuels (from carbon sources of coal, oil, and natural gas), and embracing goals of decarbonization and carbon neutrality. Ambitious benchmarks are being established for this shift from fossil fuel dependence to renewable alternative energy systems. These goals are being set on global scale by many of the world’s most populated countries, as well as many American states and Pennsylvania’s major cities with benchmarks for the next three decade through 2050. The shift is on to heat our homes, power transportation, and electrify all aspects of our world with what is considered more planet friendly energy sources.
Many of our sons and daughters and daughters foresee a world, of electrified and hydrogen powered cars, computers and lights powered by electricity from wind, solar, and other renewables yet to be defined, and an ever-decreasing use of fossil fuels. As we move through the next decade to 2030 their voices will continue to replace the generation who aged in a time of perceived cheap and abundant fossil energy. What place natural gas will occupy in the new energy world order will be part of an ongoing debate for sure through the next decade.
Unlike many people who live in our region, many urbanites have little knowledge how coal, oil and natural gas is extracted. They seemingly have minimal awareness how extensive and interrelated the established infrastructure is to meet their needs in their city environments. Fossil fuel proponents for natural gas claim if properly produced and delivered it has a significantly lower carbon footprint than oil and coal. These advocates see natural gas as a clean fuel alternative to bridge the transition to renewable alternatives over the next three decades.
Counter to this view, decarbonization supporters demand that total life cycle costs and the expanded carbon footprint of each step in the gas drilling, production, and delivering gas to market be assessed. More ardent anti fossil fuel voices see hydraulic fracturing, which enables the recovery of abundant natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica formations in Pennsylvania and Ohio, as a major threat and hazard to air and water quality. Their call for a total ban on “fracking now” is being espoused by some on the national stage as the 2020 presidential election approaches.
Industry advocates hope to pacify some of the negative doomsayers, as they search for less invasive fracturing methods including using carbon dioxide (CO2) instead of water as a medium. Field service companies that do the hydraulic fracturing like Haliburton and Baker Hughes are transitioning from diesel power to natural gas and electric motors, compressors and pumps. The gas industry now is promoting itself as seeking sustainability practices and are moving to implement broad methane emissions control across all areas in the United States where they operate.
No matter how one views the use of natural gas, 2020 begins a new decade in which the future course of our national energy policy will be passionately debated, and purposefully articulated by many diverse voices. Hopefully a policy can be crafted that will be strategically implemented for the highest mutual benefit, here in our region, in Pennsylvania and for the United States to collaboratively join and lead a global effort to balance our energy wants and needs.