Conventional, easy-to-get natural gas in the U.S. has already peaked and natural gas from all sources will peak in North America around 2010 and globally between 2030 and 2035.
Dr. Michael Smith, Energy Files Ltd., 2004“
The North American outlook for natural gas production is not good. Mexican production has been in decline since 1999. U.S. production has been in a plateau for some time. All the big finds have been tapped and are in decline. Currently, we are bringing new wells online at a maddening pace just to keep our domestic production flat. And the new wells are declining at rates as high as 80% in the first year. The size of the new finds is also diminishing. Over the past decade, the amount of gas found per foot drilled has declined by 50%.
Dale Allen Pfeiffer, The Natural Gas Cliff, October 2005
Since natural gas is used to heat over 60% of the homes in America and in about 70% of new homes, its important to know how it gets to our homes and how fragile natural gas is as a source of both direct heating energy and as an indirect source of electrical generation for cooling.
Natural gas consists mostly of methane. Conventional natural gas is found in underground formations of porous rock, and conventional, easy sources of NG in the U.S. peaked in 1973. To keep up with demand, we are now frantically drilling and keeping our supply heads above water with a combination of shale gas, tight gas(from non-porous rock formations), deep gas (from wells over 15,000 feet in depth), sub-sea gas, and coalbed methane gas. These “unconventional” sources all require more risk and capital for extraction. Nearly 20% of U.S. demand is filled with imports from Canada through our existing pipeline system and to a much lessor extent via imports of liquid natural gas (LNG) from Trinidad and Tobago.
Natural gas gets to our homes through a complex system of pipes or “lines”. Gathering lines connect drill rig production areas to natural gas processing or refining plants which separate out natural gas liquids, water, carbon dioxide, sulfur, and inert gases such as helium which would reduce the energy value of the gas. The refined gas is then piped into a 280-thousand mile North American transmission network. This network consists of 20 to 42-inch diameter pipes with compressor “boost stations” located about 75-miles apart to maintain sufficient working pressure.
Local distribution companies tap into to this network, providing a storage buffer, and metering the gas through a system of more than one million miles of mains and smaller trunk lines that bring gas to our homes.
Much of the soil in the Great Plains is little more than a sponge into which we must pour hydrocarbon-based [natural gas] fertilizers in order to produce crops.
Dale Allen Pfeiffer, Eating Fossil Fuels, 2004
Looming Natural Gas Shortages
No one knows how and exactly when shortages will occur, but shortages are inevitable, even in the context of exploiting new arctic natural gas sources and the building of a massive LNG (liquid natural gas) infrastructure. Both of these sources will take years to develop and to have an impact and will require billions of dollars in capital expenditures. LNG is our best hope of avoiding severe shortages, but dependence on LNG will thrust us into the international gas market, forcing us to compete for Middle Eastern and Russia gas with Europe and the emerging economies of India and China, at prices two to three times what we pay today. By the time arctic gas and imported LNG become available in meaningful quantities, we will have already begun a steady and irreversible decline in our current North American sources of production.
A few years ago people looked at L.N.G. as a solution to North America’s gas needs. But
today we see that there is less L.N.G. around than people expected, and there is more
competition for that L.N.G. from markets that are willing to pay more than the United States.
Nikos Tsafos, analyst with PFC Energy, 2008
At first higher prices will cause demand destruction in the industrial sector and manufacturers will convert to other energy sources like coal or move production to locations in the world where natural gas is still plentiful. Eventually, because modern agriculture is heavily dependent on fertilizer, and natural gas in the primary fertilizer feedstock, we may be faced with the dilemma of either heating our homes or putting food on the table.
Just as we will be forced to find new ways to configure and power a personal transportation system, we will have to find new ways (or revert to old ways) to moderate the internal environments of our homes. The equivalent of 500 HP forced air furnaces lumbering away in the basements of our poorly constructed and insulated homes will no longer be sustainable in a world of rapidly depleting fossil fuel supplies. In many ways the inertia of transforming over 100 million existing homes will be more difficult than transforming our transportation system and onus and urgency for change will fall on the homeowner.
There are about 2,000 drilling rigs in the U.S. That’s one rig for every 150,000 people, an
increasingly dicey formula. Last winter we Americans collectively consumed more than 2 trillion cubic-feet of natural gas each month, one-fourth of it from the Rockies. Due to accelerating decline rates in older fields, we now need to replace with new drilling one-third of the gas we used the year before. Charlie calls this the “depletion treadmill,” and he is chained to it. If guys like Charlie stopped working for a year, you’d have to turn a few things off, big things like, say, New York and Ohio. – Peak Oil Review 8/25/08