Transportation and Natural Gas

Despite much controversy surrounding natural gas from shale beds like Marcellus shale, there is a growing understanding that the U. S. has an opportunity to more innovatively use the excess supply of natural gas coming from recent finds.  On Monday, Chesapeake Energy announced that it will put $1B toward the development of natural gas use.  Chesapeake will begin its efforts with a plan to increase transportation uses of natural gas with $150M in support for infrastructure necessary for fuelling heavy-duty trucks with liquefied natural gas at truck stops along interstate highways.

In addition to the development of fueling stations in part one of the plan, Chesapeake will invest $155 million in the development of cellulosic biofuels, using natural gas and waste cellulosic material. The potential for the use of natural gas from recently discovered shale beds is considerable. Its increased use will raise the energy independence of the U.S. Expansion of production will add much needed new jobs.

There is ample reason to turn to natural gas as a transportation fuel.  Among its potential uses are direct engine combustion, use of natural gas in combination with other fuels such as biofuels for combustion, conversion to and use as hydrogen, and the generation of electricity as an energy source for electric vehicles. In addition to its apparent abundance and its capacity to increase U.S. energy independence while producing many more jobs, natural gas is a relatively low carbon fuel. Oil contains 28% more pounds of carbon per billion BTU, and coal is 43% higher.

Taking advantage of the availability of natural gas and its relatively lower output of carbon will depend on some important university-based research in the areas of science and engineering as well as policy. In the policy area, universities have the capacity to develop models that will help us to make the best economic and political choices about infrastructure development.  From law schools, economics departments and related fields, there is an important opportunity to evaluate policy options that have the potential to increase citizens’ security about issues related to the production process as well as the societal costs relative to fees and taxes.

In the areas of science and engineering, there is much that we still need to learn about natural gas production, including the impacts of fracking on humans and wildlife. While we have long discussed cellulosic biomass as a source of fuel, there is still much work to be done on the genetic issues associated with plant growth as well as the issues associated with efficient production processes.  And these are only a few of the related areas of research in science and engineering that are essential to wider spread use of a plentiful natural gas supply.

Nevertheless, the recently discovered abundance in the U.S. of a substantially lower carbon fuel – natural gas from shale beds – has huge potential.  We may not yet have the capacity to produce a sustainable supply of energy from renewable sources, but we can begin to use sources of fuel like natural gas that have lower impacts on the environment while raising our energy independence.  In the longer run, we will develop the knowledge base that is so critical to energy sustainability.

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