The Role of Shale Gas for Green, Sustainable & Reliable Energy

October 9, 2015 | 0 comments

To continue our collaboration with Penn State Reads on The Boom by Russell Gold, we share this post by Dr. Terry Engelder. Dr. Engelder holds degrees from Penn State, Yale and a Ph.D. from Texas A & M. He is an expert on shale formations and is considered one of the scientific fathers of the shale gas boom because of his calculations of the volume of trapped natural gas in shale formations, particularly the Marcellus Shale.

Engelder is featured in Chapter 10 of The Boom. Gold writes, “As a teenager, the ring finger on [Engelder’s] right hand was crushed between two pipes while working as a laborer in an aging Pennsylvania oil field. But he has become an unabashed supporter of shale development.” In the pages that follow, Gold tells of an exchange between Dr. Engelder and Dr. Tony Ingraffea of Cornell University on whether we should pursue shale gas. During the public event, Gold writes that Engelder quoted John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” He followed the Kennedy quotation by calling on people to sacrifice. “The sacrifice,” Gold writes, “of course, is that this is an industry that can’t come in without leaving some scars behind” (p. 234). This call to sacrifice was highlighted on The Field Guide by citizen activist Jenny Lisak in her post, “‘What good is our education’ if we keep fracking?

To deepen the conversation, we were interested to learn his thoughts on sustainability, natural gas and the role that sacrifice plays in our quest for energy. As you will read, Engelder believes natural gas is a necessary part of our energy present and future and that it reaches far beyond Pennsylvania’s borders.

We include some questions at the end of this post.

In conjunction with first-year students reading The Boom, Dr. Peter Buckland, a postdoctoral fellow in the Sustainability Institute, asked me to write a short blog entry on natural gas’s role in a sustainable energy economy.

To answer Dr. Buckland’s request, I wish to draw a distinction between green energy, sustainable energy, and reliable energy. Green energy is anything with a smaller carbon footprint than burning fossil fuels to drive the steam turbines which generate our electricity. In this regard, nuclear is green. Sustainable energy means that the supply of energy will not be depleted for centuries. Nuclear energy may be depleted in the near future but there is so much natural gas in places like methane hydrates that its production can be sustainable. Reliable energy means that it is present for use 24/7. In this regard, neither solar nor wind are reliable given present day technology but it is a guarantee they will be with us for centuries.

Recently I have presented seminars on other university campuses under the title: “The greatest geological issue facing mankind: Humans have come to expect a reliable supply of energy.” I suspect that if people had to pick just one of the three types of energy, reliability gets more votes than green or sustainable. Evidence may be found for this in the impact of the Syrian civil war. The Syrian city of Aleppo with a population of two million has come under siege from Assad’s government, from the rebels, and from ISIS in the east. Of these two million people, the lucky ones are those who have electricity for an hour or two a day. The rest are fleeing to refugee camps throughout the Middle East with many moving on to European countries. There is relative peace in the Middle East refugee camps so something else is driving people further away. It is the lack of reliable energy to run the sewers, deliver the food, take away the garbage, and manufacture things that are basic to a comfortable life. People will not tolerate living in discomfort. Europe and America have been blessed because they produce reliable energy at scale and this attracts those suffering in refugee camps. Sustainability is meaningless without reliability which is arguably, more important to a robust economy.

The Germans, global leaders in the green energy revolution, require on the order of 66 GW of power to sustain their economy which, coincidently, will support thousands and thousands of Syrians fleeing the refugee camps to which they were driven by the Assad-Rebel-ISIS civil war. In fact, there were a few hours this past July during which green energy powered up to 78% of German demand but that 78% was not reliable. There are much longer periods during which green energy is reduced to just the hydroelectric power that can be purchased from Norway at great expense. Because the average German citizen expects to turn on the lights 24/7, the power grid has to rely on another source of energy and that happens to be natural gas which Vladimir Putin is more than happy to sell to the Germans at a rate of three to four times that which Americans are paying to heat their houses. Natural gas more than any other source of energy enables the German green economy because natural gas makes the German electrical grid reliable.

In America the problem with green energy is the same. Green energy is not yet sustainable because, outside of hydroelectric power, no one has learned to make it reliable. In the US, fossil fuels serve the same role as they do in Germany – provide reliability. Fossil fuels have the disadvantage of a carbon footprint and that’s why it would be nice to move to an economy that relies more on green energy with fossil fuels becoming a backup to provide reliability. The reality today is that green energy is a supplement for fossil fuels. Because of climate change, natural gas has become a bridge fuel providing reliability until the discovery of new battery technologies that can be scaled to meet the demand for reliability.

There are lots of complaints about the production of this bridge fuel, natural gas, but are they all real? National Public Radio’s (NPR) science reporter, Christopher Joyce recently stated, “I’ve been in science journalism for 30 years. And, controversy is always great in news because that’s what makes people listen! When a dog bites a man, who cares? I have never seen more scientific disinformation bantered about at any time in my life as fracking (natural gas production). And I have spent a fair amount of time talking to people who are academics, who are in industry groups, who are in environmental groups and I am amaze at the level of both inadvertent and purposeful disinformation. It’s one of the hardest things that I have ever had to cover because there is such an agenda on everybody’s mine that it’s gone really haywire and it is so hard to get really good straight answers because everybody’s out way ahead of the peer reviewed work or work that I would consider peer reviewed or of that quality. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the industry has gotten way out ahead of the scientific community because that does happen. When we think of fracking we cannot think of it in a vacuum. When you think about natural gas you have to think about what it is displacing. What is natural gas displacing? 170 coal fired power plants have been closed down in the past five years, more or less. Coal is the biggest source of carbon emissions on the planet. So is the glass half full or half empty?” Implicitly, Joyce just said that natural gas is a game changer in terms of reducing America’s carbon footprint.

I once gave a talk in Philadelphia along with a city councilman who told that audience that Philadelphia did not need fracking in Pennsylvania because Philadelphia was powered with natural gas from Texas. Philadelphia did not have to concern itself with the externalities of fracking as long as the gas came from Texas. There was no thought given to the Texans who are burdened by gas production in their backyard, whatever those burdens may be. Beyond the expectation of reliability, the city councilman expected someone else to supply the city’s energy. This is another great characteristic of Americans, NIMBY-ism – not in my back yard. I was quoted Russell Gold’s book, “The Boom” as picking up on a JFK statement about doing things for the greater good of the country. As long as we are all NIMBYs, we are not looking out for the greater good. Yes, there are risks to any industry and people have been affected by this industrialization. The problem is that there is so much purposeful disinformation that communities don’t know what to think. This disinformation exacerbates the American tendency toward NIMBY-ism regarding natural gas when it is being most helpful as a bridge fuel.

Terry Engelder, Professor of Geosciences


Penn State defines sustainability as the simultaneous pursuit of human health and happiness, environmental quality, and economic well-being for current and future generations. How does Engelder contrast green, sustainable and reliable energy? How does these contrasts challenge or broaden your ideas about sustainability and energy?

Engelder writes, “Sustainability is meaningless without reliability which is arguably, more important to a robust economy.” What role does reliability play in a robust economy? What role does reliable energy play in a healthy society? What role does it play in maintaining high environmental quality?

Most of The Boom focuses on the American development of shale gas. Engelder broadens our view by highlighting energy development in Germany, natural gas sold from Russia and the problems people face in war-torn Syria. How does this broadened picture inform your views on energy and natural gas? What else would you want to know?

In her post, “‘What good is all our education’ if we keep fracking?” Jenny Lisak challenges Engelder’s assertion that we should sacrifice for energy security if she is insecure in her own home. Engelder addresses this attitude (in the form of the Philadelphia councilman) as NIMBYism, not in my backyard. What are your views on NIMBYism? Are there ways to reconcile Lisak’s and Engelder’s positions? If so, how? If not, why not?

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