Zoback says it will be years before he knows whether the process works. “Of course, there is a long way from concept to implementation. And there are a hundred and one questions that need to be answered,” he says. But, he suggests, the recent slowdown in gas drilling provides an opportunity to test the idea before the pace of drilling picks up again, as he expects it to in 2011 or 2012. Zoback notes that pipelines are now used to deliver carbon dioxide to oil-drilling sites to enhance production; a similar infrastructure, he says, could be built around shale-gas wells. And, he says, building some of that infrastructure while developing shale-gas drilling will make carbon storage much more practical.
Still, not all experts think it’s wise to rapidly expand the market for natural gas. Simply put, they worry that the country could become addicted to yet another fossil fuel–one that could turn out, over the long term, to be far less abundant and more expensive than many now predict.
The experience of Great Britain in the late 1980s provides a sobering example. The country was adjacent to an enormous, underdeveloped resource of natural gas in the North Sea. At the time, the Conservative government headed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was fighting with the coal miners, and natural gas looked like an economically and politically attractive fuel. So government and industry pushed forward with what became known as the “dash for gas,” allowing the use of that fuel in power plants for the first time. The country’s coal industry all but disappeared, and nuclear power was largely neglected. “The whole country moved very rapidly toward building new gas-fired power stations,” recalls Tony Meggs, who was then an executive at BP responsible for a building an export pipeline for the fuel. “We started exploiting the underdeveloped gas fields, and it was great. We were very happy.”
But in retrospect, says Meggs, now a visiting engineer at MIT and codirector of the school’s forthcoming report on natural gas, the rapid expansion of the market in Great Britain turned out to be “bad policy.” These days, he says, the U.K. imports substantial amounts of the natural gas it depends on for much of its electricity generation; by 2020 it will be forced to import 70 percent, most of it from continental Europe. “So we went from a position of great supplies and security, with everyone saying there’s a lot a gas, to a position that from an energy-security perspective is very unattractive,” Meggs says. “It is very important that the U.S. doesn’t go the same route, expanding markets and using resources inappropriately and then ultimately becoming import-dependent.”
While Meggs calls the shale-gas supply in the United States a “great blessing,” he cautions that it is still unclear how large a resource it will be, because drilling for it “is a relatively young phenomenon.” Any energy policy must take those uncertainties into account, he says. MIT’s natural-gas study, for example, will focus on “not just how much is there but how much it costs to get it out of the ground, how long it will last, and what is the range [of uncertainties], both in terms of cost and in terms of ultimate recoverability.”
The worry, of course, is that much less gas than experts have estimated will turn out to be recoverable from shale at an acceptable environmental and economic cost. Jay Apt, executive director of the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center in Pittsburgh, is blunt: “We’re in an early stage of a shale boom. Every practitioner in a boom thinks it will last forever and is surprised, in five or seven years, that it isn’t going to last forever.” Apt predicts “an inevitable downgrading of the number of cubic feet that these deposits can supply.” After all, he says, “there is a difference between what Mother Nature gave you and what the town will allow you to extract.” The gas producers’ extensive land and water use is already creating a backlash in Pennsylvania, he says. And the danger of rapidly converting more electricity plants to natural gas is that once shale-gas supplies “top off,” power producers will be reliant on imports and vulnerable to volatility in their prices.