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Bright future for natural gas, study says

  |   June 10, 2011 at 2:25 PM
BOSTON, June 10 (UPI) -- On the heels of an International Energy Agency report signaling the "golden age of natural gas," another study says natural gas can play a critical role as a bridge to a low-carbon future.

"The Future of Natural Gas," released Thursday by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, estimates there are about 150 years' worth of natural gas available at current global consumption rates.

"Gas is, globally speaking, a very young industry with a very bright future ahead of it," said Anthony Meggs, the study's co-chairman and visiting engineer at the MIT Energy Initiative. "Shale gas is transformative for the economy of the U.S. and potentially on a global scale."

The opening of new shale reserves "fundamentally enhances the nation's long-term gas supply outlook," the report says.

Using very efficient natural gas power plants to replace coal-fired plants is "the most cost-effective way" of reducing carbon emissions in the power sector over the next 25-30 years, the report says.

Natural gas accounts for about 23 percent of electricity generation in the United States, compared to 50 percent from coal.

The report recommends continuing research and development on other energy alternatives that could take the place of natural gas later in the century.

"People speak of (natural) gas as a bridge to the future but there had better be something at the other end of the bridge," said Henry Jacoby, MIT professor of management and another co-chairman of the study.

The report acknowledges the environmental dangers of the controversial natural gas development technique of hydro-fracturing, known as fracking, which involves injecting water and chemicals into deep horizontal wells under pressure to release trapped gas.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Energy announced the creation of a seven-member panel to review the environmental safety of fracking.

The MIT report says that "the environmental impacts of shale development are challenging but manageable" and that some cases of the gas entering freshwater tables were "most likely the result of substandard well-completion practices by a few operators."

As for contamination problems, Meggs cited improper cementing of the well casings.

"The quality of that cementing is the area where the industry, frankly, has to do a better job," he said.

Out of tens of thousands of wells drilled, the study found 42 documented incidents of contamination.

Research and regulation on the state and federal level are needed to minimize the environmental consequences of fracking, the report says.

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