But it’s still uncertain how the large supply of natural gas will actually change U.S. energy consumption. Coal is generally cheaper than natural gas, so it remains the fuel of choice for most power producers. Meanwhile, car and truck makers have no economic reason to start producing natural-gas-fueled vehicles, and there’s no infrastructure in place to refuel them in any case. In the absence of federal policy changes, the EIA predicts, demand for natural gas will stay relatively flat for the next several decades.
Liberal Washington-based lobbying groups, gas-industry interests, and environmental groups are pushing for policies to favor natural gas in the country’s energy mix, citing its environmental and national-security benefits. If those groups can persuade legislators, incentives to increase use of the fuel could be a key part of the federal energy bill being debated in Congress this fall. Previously, policy makers presumed that natural gas was a “declining resource,” says Reid Detchon, executive director of the Energy Future Coalition, a Washington-based advocacy organization. But now, he says, it’s possible to develop an energy policy based on “as much gas as you need.”
“It doesn’t matter what the exact number is,” says Mark Zoback, a professor of geophysics at Stanford University. “The numbers are all so big it means we have an extremely large domestic resource that is going to play a significant role in the country’s energy future.” Natural gas is not a complete solution, he cautions. Still, he says, “it’s not unreasonable that over the next decade or two we could completely get off coal, using gas as the principal fuel for electricity generation. I don’t think natural gas is an alternative to renewables, but I do think it is by far the best fuel to use as we transition away from fossil fuels.”
The rush to drill the Marcellus shale for gas is already under way in Pennsylvania. According to a report released this summer by Penn State, drilling in the Marcellus will generate $3.8 billion and create more than 48,000 jobs in 2009. And the business of extracting natural gas from the deposit “is still in its infancy,” says Robert Watson, an associate professor emeritus of petroleum and natural-gas engineering and coauthor of the report. “It’s a brand-new industry.”
Not only does natural gas lie under 60 to 65 percent of the state, Watson says, but many of the most promising drilling areas are adjacent to existing pipelines that can cheaply transport it throughout the Northeast, the world’s largest market for the fuel. “Some of the pipelines go right over the heart of the Marcellus shale,” he says. “You have a well, and next to it you have a [pipeline] that goes right into New York City.” Watson predicts that gas drilling will generate $1 trillion over the hundred-year life of the shale development and create some 120,000 jobs for the state by 2020. “Pennsylvania has the potential to become an OPEC of natural gas,” he says. “It’s mind-boggling. It will have an impact on Pennsylvania’s economy not seen since the collapse of the steel industry.”
His seemingly hyperbolic assertion becomes more plausible when you visit southwestern Pennsylvania, an area known for steel production and coal mining. Tough times for steel have left behind abandoned, rusting factories and, until recently, economic hardship. These days, brand-new four-wheel-drive pickups and heavy industrial drilling equipment fill the rural roads. Tucked away among the rolling hills and small farms are dozens of new gas wells. Occasionally, a tall drilling rig peeps over a ridgeline.
One of the companies leading the Pennsylvania gas rush is Range Resources, a Fort Worth-based firm that drilled the first commercial wells in the Marcellus shale in 2004. At one of Range’s drilling sites, about 45 minutes south of Pittsburgh, a massive, multimillion-dollar rig rises high above the quiet farmland. The rig will drill half a dozen wells spaced just a few feet apart; once it has finished drilling a well, hydraulic jacks will lift the tons of equipment and “walk” it into position for the next one. Beside the drilling site is a small pond lined with plastic, filling up with the mud and debris that spurt from the well.