Science & Technology
7:21 pm
Fri June 29, 2012

The Future of Energy

Nathan Hultman, a scientist at the University of Maryland, has thought a lot about shale gas, climate change, and energy policy. It's not so much the emissions he's worried about with shale gas, but the impact it will have on a cleaner type of energy.

This story is part of "Gas Planet," a special presentation of the Allegheny Front.

FRAZIER: If we are using more natural gas to power our homes, our factories, and our lives in general, what are the climate implications of this change? And what role will fracking in shale formations and other unconventional sources of energy have on climate? I talked about this with Nathan Hultman. He studies climate change and energy policy at the University of Maryland, where he is director of Environmental and energy policy programs in the School of Public Policy. He's also studied the greenhouse gas impact of unconventional gas from hydraulic fracturing. We caught up with him on a sunny day outside of his office at the University of Maryland.

Nathan, hello and welcome.

HULTMAN: Thanks for having me on.

FRAZIER: You've read the research from Robert Howarth who we've heard from earlier in our show that fracking could actually be worse than coal and oil, when it comes to releasing greenhouse gases, mainly because of increased methane emissions. And you did your own study in this area. Why did you decide to look into this?

HULTMAN: Well, it's a really important question if we're thinking about climate. The forces that govern our energy security are quite dependent on the advent of this new fuel source in the United States. Professor Howarth raised a very interesting question, got a lot of us talking in the field about what might be the implications. I think he did a service to the community by raising this question and just essentially identifying a possible problem.

FRAZIER: So, bottom line: What did you find? Did you find that gas was better than coal?

HULTMAN: There was no question in my mind that if you're talking about electricity generation, gas is better than coal. To me it's unequivocal. Our study essentially shows that. You have to bend over pretty far backwards to try to illustrate some kind of a fact that makes gas look somewhat similar to coal.

FRAZIER: I want to ask you about this whole question of methane leaks. How certain are you that the methane leaks and emissions from fracking are low enough to make gas that much better than coal in the end?

HULTMAN: That's a great question and one that I think is probably one of the top priority areas for us to look at in terms of policy. Part of the issue in the early controversy of this question relates to the paucity or the scarcity of good data sources on the emissions from the drilling of these unconventional wells. At the time, there were very, very poor quality data available. They were unreliable. We did the best we could, all of the scholars working on it, with the limited data we had, but I think the primary acknowledgement in all of these reports was that the data really need to be improved. Our federal agencies and state agencies are well aware of this and are trying to create a much better quality dataset so we can understand it, as a research community, but also then be able to apply it and get much more certain, life-cycle assessments of the emissions from these different processes.

FRAZIER: So, what do you think we should do? Should we continue using hydraulic fracturing in the hopes it will bridge us to some kind of low-carbon future?

HULTMAN: Yeah, in the end I think if the choice is between coal and natural gas—and natural gas is substantially provided by hydraulic fracturing—the first question is always of course to say: Is the hydraulic fracturing safe in other ways? And this is not my area. I don't know the answer to whether hydraulic fracturing is. This is something other people can discuss.

If we can convince ourselves that the process is safe to human health and to environmental and ecosystem health and that therefore, on those dimensions, the fracked gas is essentially equivalent to conventional gas, to me there is no question that natural gas electricity generation is better for the climate than coal electricity generation. That is the merits of the case, and I think that's unequivocal.

That said, we also have to be mindful, if we're concerned about climate change, about this longer-term transition. The question is: Is it actually a bridge to a clean energy future with a mix of gas and renewables, or is it essentially a one-way bridge to more natural gas without a renewables component? If we want it to be a renewable component as well as a fossil component, we do have to be mindful of our public policies—that's federal and state policies on electricity generation. Do we want to encourage wind and solar technology in this transition when the gas prices are so much lower than they used to be? In my opinion the answer is yes, that we do want to make sure these industries, nascent as they are, can have a foothold and therefore be part of a vibrant U.S. industry that does, in fact, embrace wind and solar and other kinds of renewable technologies, as well as clean natural gas.

FRAZIER: Nathan Hultman, thank you.

HULTMAN: Thanks very much.