I have been researching what may be the single biggest game changer for climate action in the next two decades — U.S. natural gas supply.  Last week I attended a workshop where some of the country’s leading gas experts presented the remarkable new projections for near- and medium-term supply and then answered questions from some of the country’s top energy experts.

The bottom line is staggering.  As one of the presenters put it, “If the current trend continues” for production of unconventional gas, then by 2020 “natural gas could displace half of the coal burning power plants.” If that is true, and the projections by the other experts were comparable, then natural gas alone could essentially meet the entire Waxman-Markey CO2 target for 2020 — without requiring gobs of new power plants to be sited and built or thousands of miles of new transmission lines.

There is simply no doubt that, other than energy efficiency and conservation, the lowest-cost option for achieving large-scale CO2 reductions by 2020 is simply replacing electricity produced by burning coal with power generated by burning more natural gas in the vast array of currently underutilized gas-fired plants (as I will discuss in more detail in Part 2).  Natural gas is the cheapest, low-carbon baseload power around.

And it’s not just suppliers and industry experts calling for a major expansion of natural gas.  In its detailed analysis of how the U.S. can quickly slash CO2 emissions and transition off of coal without building new nukes, Energy [R]evolution, Greenpeace (!) assumes a 50% growth in natural gas power generation by 2020.

UPDATE:  I should note that a modern natural gas combined cycle plant has 60% or more lower CO2 emissions per kilowatt-hour than a typical coal plant — and substantially lower (if not near-zero) emissions of a variety of toxic pollutants harmful to human health, perhaps most notably mercury.  That’s why it is widely seen, even by groups as green as Greenpeace, as a plausible transition fuel for the next two to three decades as we aggressively ramp up wind, solar PV, concentrated solar thermal, biomass, geothermal, and other ultra-low-carbon energy sources.

The explosion in unconventional gas supply is being led by so-called shale gas (see Wikipedia entry here).  Significantly, candidate Obama’s energy plan actually called for “early identification of any infrastructure obstacles/shortages or possible federal permitting process delays to drilling in “Unconventional natural gas supplies in the Barnett Shale formation in Texas and the Fayetteville Shale in Arkansas.”  But shale gas extends way beyond those two plays:

Everyone who cares about clean energy and climate issues needs to become knowledgeable on shale gas — both its supply potential and the environmental risks associated with extracting it.  Where to start?  I’m glad you asked.

On Thursday, June 4 at 10 AM, “The House Natural Resources Committee, Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, led by Rep. Jim Costa (D-CA), will hold an oversight hearing on “Unconventional Fuels, Part I: Shale Gas Potential.”

This hearing will be webcast live on the Committee’s Web site at: http://resourcescommittee.house.gov/.

Witnesses:

Mr. Douglas Duncan
Associate Coordinator, Energy Resources Program
United States Geological Survey

Mr. Scott Kell
President
Ground Water Protection Council

Mr. Mike John
Vice President of Corporate Development and Government Relations, Eastern Division
Chesapeake Energy Corporation

Mr. Lynn Helms
Director, Oil and Gas Division
North Dakota Industrial Commission

Mr. Albert F. Appleton
Infrastructure and Environmental Consultant
Former Director of the New York City Water and Sewer System

This looks to me to be a very good place to start.  E&E Daily (subs. req’d) has more on the hearing:

Lawmakers on a House Natural Resources subcommittee this week will hear testimony about the potential of the nation’s vast natural gas reserves in shales to contribute to U.S. energy supplies, as drillers continue their rush to tap unexplored plays like the Marcellus in Appalachia and the Haynesville in Louisiana despite the economic downturn and depressed oil and gas prices….

… the plays have only recently become economically feasible to develop as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technology has progressed.

And some scientists have said the shales’ potential to contribute to U.S. energy supplies is vast. Researchers have estimated the Marcellus to hold some 50 trillion cubic feet of natural gas — one-fourth of total U.S. proven reserves — locked away in the tightly packed, fine-grained rock. And the Haynesville play could be the largest in the United States if estimates of its potential 250 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas are correct.

Shale plays could produce 15 billion to 20 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day within a decade, according to Terry Ruder, vice chairman of the Natural Gas Supply Association. Americans use about 60 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day, he said at a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission conference last fall

But as with any major energy resource, legitimate environmental concerns exist:

Those testifying will likely also field questions about the production technology’s effect on water supplies and the environment.

Democrats in Congress are currently pushing legislation that would repeal natural gas drilling technology’s exemption from clean water regulations.

Congress exempted hydraulic fracturing from the Clean Water Act in 2005 after a U.S. EPA study determined the process posed little risk to water supplies. But environmentalists say that study is flawed and the exemption poses health risks because of the chemicals used (Greenwire, Jan. 21).

Industry is staunchly opposed to such legislation, saying such a bill would increase costs, strain development and reduce jobs in the burgeoning field.

So tune into the hearing for introductory course in shale gas, costs and benefits.

I’ll be posting more this month on this important subject — and I very much welcome recommendations for studies and articles to read.