Don’t count on natural gas to solve US energy problems

We often hear statements suggesting that by ramping up shale gas production, the US can raise total natural gas production and solve many of its energy problems, including adding quite a number of natural gas vehicles, and replacing a large share of coal fired electricity generation. While there is the possibility that shale gas will allow US natural gas supplies to increase for a few years (or even 10 or 15 years), natural gas is only about one-fourth of US fossil fuel use, so it would be very difficult to ramp it up enough to meet all of these needs.

One issue is whether a rise in shale gas will mostly offset other reductions in natural gas supply. In Annual Energy Outlook 2011, EIA forecasts that shale gas production will increase from 23% of US natural gas production in 2010 to 46% of US natural gas production by 2035, but that these increases will mostly offset decreases elsewhere. Even with this huge increase in shale gas production, the EIA only sees US natural gas production increasing by an average of 0.8% per year between 2011 and 2035, and US natural gas consumption increasing by an average of 0.6% per year per year to 2035–not enough to make a very big dent in our overall energy needs.

Figure 1. EIA Figure from the Early Release Overview of Annual Energy Release 2011. (Upper caption is EIA's.)

I don’t know that the EIA forecast is correct, but below the fold are some related issues I see. While we may see some increase in natural gas supplies, there is significant downside risk if shale gas cannot continue to ramp up considerably, because of cost, or fracking issues, or CO2 issues, or any number of other problems. Even if shale gas does continue to ramp up as planned, the EIA forecast suggests that the overall increase in total US natural gas production is likely to be modest at best. It seems to me that steps we make to use this new supply should be made cautiously, being aware that the increased supply may not be all that much, or last all that long. 

1. The US is a natural gas importer. It does not produce as much natural gas as it consumes.

Figure 2. US natural gas consumption, separated into US produced, LNG, and Canadian imports, based on EIA data.

Figure 2 shows the US has been a natural gas importer for many years, with Canada being the major source of imports. LNG has played a more minor role. The amounts imported have not been a large percentage of the total, but even now they are essential for keeping the prices down.  The import amounts shown are on “net of exports” basis. In other words, LNG imports have been reduced by LNG exports (from Alaska to Japan), and Canadian imports have been reduced by exports of natural gas to Canada.

2. The US supply pattern for natural gas has been quite irregular over the years.

A person can see how irregular the natural gas supply pattern has been in Figure 2. Figure 3, below, shows US natural gas production by itself. The irregularity of production over the years and the fact that current production is not much above 1970, makes a person wonder if the optimistic forecasts are really accurate. One factor that may have may have depressed production was price controls from 1954 until 1978, but even without price controls, there has not been much of an upward trend in production until recently.

Figure 2. EIA historical US natural gas production. Graph by EIA.

3. In the absence of shale gas, EIA’s forecast for US natural gas production would be a decline over the next 25 years.

This is clear from Figure 1, at the top of the post. EIA is forecasting an increase in shale gas, but to a significant extent it would act to offset a decline in other production. Note that historical shale gas production on Figure 1 is very small, but the EIA is forecasting a very large increase for this sector.  If declines in other production have been optimistically estimated, then it is possible that there may be a decline in total production, even if the shale gas estimate is correct.

4. The production of Canada, the US’s largest source of imports, is declining as its own use is rising.

Figure 4. Canadian Natural Gas Production, Consumption, and Exports from Energy Export Databrowser.

Figure 4 suggests that at least part of the need for additional shale gas production is simply to offset declines in Canadian production. If Canada uses more natural gas in its oil operations, this could exert additional downward pressure on exports in future years.

5. The much publicized report from the Potential Gas Committee relates to “resources”. Much of these resources may prove to be too expensive, or not technically feasible, to extract.

Figure 5 is the summary exhibit from the report, showing proved reserves and resources.

Figure 5. Summary Exhibit from the Potential Gas Committee Regarding Natural Gas Reserves and Potential Resources

US current consumption is about 24 trillion cubic feet a year. If we divide the “U. S. Future Supply” of 2,074.1 TCF by 24, we get 86 years, which is the source of the statement that 100 years of natural gas supply is available. But it is not at all clear how much of this is economically extractable with technology that we have now, or will be able to develop in the future. If we exclude speculative resources, we are down to 61 years, assuming no growth in natural gas consumption. If natural gas use rises, we would exhaust those resources much sooner.

If we exclude both “Speculative Resources” and “Possible Resources,” then the number of years at current consumption falls to 29 (but much shorter, if production ramps up sharply). The shale gas portion of this is about a third of the total, or approximately 10 years, at current consumption levels.

The EIA had access to the Potential Gas Committee report when they put out the “early release overview” version of Annual Energy Outlook 2011. They show an average annual growth rate of US dry gas production to 2035 of 0.8%, and an annual growth rate of US dry gas consumption to 2035 of 0.6%. (The latter would reflect lower expected imports over the time period.) So evidently, their expectations are quite modest overall.

6. If Texas experience serves as an example, shale production starts dropping fairly quickly after it starts.

Texas is the home of Barnett Shale, the first of the big shale resource plays. Data for the state of Texas indicates that 2009 production was down from the 2008 level, and an estimate I made for 2010 using data through November suggests it will be down even further in 2010.

Figure 6. Texas natural gas marketed production based on EIA data. 2010 estimated based on Jan-Nov actual data.

Based on Figure 6, It appears that Barnett Shale production reached a peak (of approximately 2 trillion cubic feet per year) in 2008, and has been declining since. According to Art Berman, initial plans were based on the assumption that the quality of reserves was uniformly excellent throughout the area, but as drilling proceeded, it became increasingly clear that there were only two sweet spots, and drilling contracted into those areas.

7. Shale gas drillers appear to need higher prices than are currently available to make production of shale gas profitable.

A big reason why natural gas looks so attractive now is its low price, but it is doubtful these low prices can last. Art Berman has shown that a well head price of over $7 per thousand cubic feet is needed for shale gas drillers to make a profit. He has also pointed out that estimates of well profitability are based on optimistic views of how long individual wells will be economic. If wells are taken offline more quickly than assumed, this will further raise the needed price. (I came to a similar conclusion using a different approach  here also).

In the recent past, prices have been more in the $4 per thousand cubic price range, but over the long term, prices have been very volatile.

Figure 7. Monthly average wellhead natural gas prices based on EIA data, adjusted to current cost level using US Urban CPI.

Many who are expecting that natural gas use to grow are assuming that prices will stay low. It is doubtful this can happen. Prices will need to be much higher for shale gas production to grow greatly.

8. High (and volatile) prices tend to depress natural gas consumption for industrial use and for heating buildings.

Figure 8. US Natural Gas Consumption by Sector, based on EIA data.

Industrial use of natural gas has not been rising over the long term; it was higher in 1973 than it is currently. Industrial use rose to a peak in 1997, but when prices started becoming volatile, it dropped again. Natural gas for residential and commercial use is primarily for heating, hot water, and cooking. Its use has remained quite level over the years, reflecting increased efficiency of furnaces, better insulation, and growth in electrical substitutes (such as heat pumps). The only area of natural gas consumption showing real growth has been electrical use of natural gas.

Much of the enthusiasm for new uses for natural gas seems to be driven by its current low price. When this price starts rising again, past history suggests that enthusiasm may wane. Higher use for electrical consumption may continue regardless of price, but a low price makes it more attractive for this use too.

At some point, even electrical use may decline with high price. There is considerable evidence that high oil prices send the economy into recession. There is good reason to believe that very high natural gas prices might have a similar effect.

9. The amount of oil and coal consumption that needs to be replaced is huge in relationship to natural gas consumption.

Figure 9. US historical fossil fuel consumption, based on BP data.

Figure 9 shows that natural gas amounts to only a little more than a quarter of total US fossil fuel consumption. Trying to ramp its production up to replace coal, and to offset declines in oil availability would seem to be an extra-ordinarily difficult task. Natural gas production would need to be more than doubled–something no one is expecting.

10. There are a number of outstanding environmental questions.

With traditional gas drilling, most drilling seems to be in relatively unpopulated areas. Shale gas operations include more populated areas, leading to more chance of water pollution. Many people are concerned about the possibility of harmful environmental effects from fracking, especially if it is done close to the source of New York City water supplies. At this point, there is a six month ban on fracking of horizontal wells in New York. The EPA is also doing an analysis of the safety of fracking. It is not expected to be completed until 2012, however.

There is also an issue of whether fracking permits significant fugitive emissions of methane that could result in shale gas’s overall global warming potential being far higher than that of natural gas from conventional sources. The EPA has a technical support document on its website, suggesting that this might be the case. This is a summary graphic from that paper:

Figure 10. Summary Emissions factors from EPA Technical Paper.

According to David Lewis’s calculations, these high emissions would bring the global warming gas potential of shale gas at least to that of coal. Professor Robert Howarth of Cornell University has come to a similar conclusion, analyzing data directly. His article has been submitted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, but has not yet been published.

These findings are obviously preliminary. It may also be that even if the findings are true, there are changes to production techniques that can bring emissions down to an acceptable level, but these are things we don’t know. If this issue starts receiving much attention, it would seem to have the potential to reduce interest in shale gas production.


In summary, a review of information related to US natural gas production (and in particular shale gas production) does not give much confidence that it can ramp up by more than a small percentage over the next 25 years before it runs into some obstacle. The most likely obstacle is affordability, but there are others obstacles including the need to keep drilling (at high cost) to keep shale gas production up, or production will decline as it has done in Texas. Even if production can ramp up more, there is a chance that global warming gases associated with shale gas will suddenly become an EPA concern, and production will need to be scaled back.

There is little evidence that shale gas producers can make money at current low prices. At higher price levels, coal becomes a cheaper alternative, and substitution becomes more difficult. Coal and petroleum consumption are so large in relationship to natural gas consumption that trying to ramp up natural gas to replace more than a very small percentage of these fuels would seem to be impossible.

Shale gas is needed to offset declines in conventional production and a drop in Canadian imports, so one cannot assume that an increase in shale gas production corresponds to an increase in the amount of natural gas available for consumption.

I have not tried to look at LNG imports. To date, they have played a minor role. Based on EIA data, in 2008, LNG exports corresponded to about 7.5% of world consumption, and from Figure 2, it is clear they have only played a small role in US consumption. I would not expect this situation to change greatly. LNG terminals are expensive, and have to be financed whether they are actively used or not.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to inadequate supply.
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10 Responses to Don’t count on natural gas to solve US energy problems

  1. John says:


    Heartfelt thanks for your research and insights. But some of the conclusions appear to be mutually contradictory.

    In particular, you seem to be expecting (1) prices to remain depressed, (2) production to fall, and (3) production to be suppressed by low prices. Doesn’t each of those argue against the others?

    • For oil, what I am saying is that prices are likely to oscillate. They will increase, put the country into recession, and then decrease. Eventually, they may increase again, then decrease. At this point, they are on their way up again. The fact that prices don’t rise enough is a big reason that production does not rise to a high level. If we could support $300 barrel oil (without sending the country into recession), we would have no trouble with inadequate supplies.

      Natural gas is in some ways similar, but here prices are down near the bottom of their cycle. If shale drillers are going to stay in this business, prices need to rise. I think there is a significant likelihood that prices won’t rise in the next nine months (because of the “drill it or lose it” requirements and becomes some liquids-rich plays have natural gas associated with them, so producers will drill them, even if the gas sells at a loss). If prices don’t rise, I expect that quite a number of shale gas producers will go bankrupt, or sell out to larger organizations.

      I am not 100% certain that natural gas prices will rise. It could be that credit contraction brought on by an oil price spike will affect industrial demand of all types, and reduce natural gas demand as well. But regardless, it is hard to see that there will be enough shale gas increases to offset declining production elsewhere.

      If in fact natural gas prices, like oil prices, cannot go very high (and say there), it will depress natural gas production, just like lack of $300 barrel oil inhibits oil supply. If we could support $12 mcf natural gas prices over the long term, I don’t think that there would be any problem with natural gas supply.

  2. marty schoffstall says:

    Excellant Gail. Never been a true believer in shale gas ROI even if some of my friends have made money leasing their land.

    Liquid fuels for motive power seem to be a big hole for the US, and NG is a nice reasonably low tech solution (even retrofit solution) for cars and light trucks with pipeline’s in place and CNG tanking and compression not dependent on scarce materials (though dependent on electricity).

    Returning to my “sweet spot” category, if we focused on states that had high NG
    penetration for home heating and good solar availability we could construct a public
    policy that could put in place solar heating there and displace that NG use. Not that we seem to be able to implement any rational policies in the US.

    One nit, while we do import from Canada, I’d put that way down on the list, with NAFTA we have pre-emptive access to energy resources in Canada and Mexico, and the various “grids” are very North/South oriented. The depth of integration (or even friendship, minus hockey of course) between us is very deep.

    Thanks for a great article, you have deepened my sense of foreboding today, by putting it all together so logically and succinctly.

  3. Doug W. says:

    I do wonder if the Export Land Model applies to natural gas as well as oil. Will Canadian exports to US decline at a geometric rate in light of declines in Canadian production and increases in their domestic consumption? Here in Northern New York our natural gas comes across the St. Lawrence River from Canada. Some institutions and businesses that would be good candidates for biomass conversion are holding off because of those reasonable prices. But the supply may not be reliable in the future.

    • I think Exportland does apply to natural gas as well as oil. Consumption seems to be rising (or certainly not falling) as production falls, leaving less for exports. Also, I noted that in the two way trade with Canada, both were changing in the expected direction–our imports from Canada were declining at the same time that our exports to Canada were rising.

      The issue with biomass conversion in most of the world is that there is not enough for everyone. It also depends on oil for transport from where it is grown to the destination. So in the event of oil interruption, it is not any more of a sure thing than anything else. I am not sure there are any perfect solutions.

  4. Doug W. says:

    Wood biomass could only meet about 5% of our needs nationally on a sustainable basis according to a post that has appeared at THE OIL DRUM a couple times. That being said, there are sections of the country where biomass could be used to locally/regionally mitigate a percentage of reduced fossil fuel use. If done sustainable biomass could provide a partial buffer for areas such as the Northern Forest Region which stretches from Watertown, NY to Northern Maine.

    • I think you are right about wood biomass. One problem is that wood is used for home heating, building, paper making, electrical generation, and cellulosic ethanol production. The people planning each of these uses do not really consider other uses. Cellulosic ethanol can theoretically use other feedstocks, but soft plants are so hard to dry and store that as a practical matter, it is hard to see them actually being feasible. Quite a bit of paper-making is now overseas, but if it comes back to the US, this will raise the wood demand as well.

    • marty schoffstall says:

      I’d extend that forest region into the “top half” of pennsylvania.

      I’m skeptical of the 5% number due to its assumptions, but it would be interesting to construct some estimates in the zone you have described. I continue to see the middle class and upper middle class install secondary heating systems that zone their use of biomass while decreasing the overall BTU usage for the rest of the house, all using local fuels. These systems are almost all catalytic or catalytic-like. This to me is the short term future.

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