Natural Gas Boom: The ‘Janus’ Effect
The last five years have seen a revolution in terms of the amount of inexpensive U.S. natural gas made available for consumption in power plants, road fuels, and as a feedstock for new and expanded petrochemical plants. We are now even debating the advisability of large volume natural gas exports in the form of liquid natural gas (LNG).
This bonanza has created euphoria in the fossil energy and industrial communities, but has also created something of a “Janus effect” within the Environmental community. To the Romans, Janus (the two faced god) provided a cohesive view of the present as well as an uncertain view of the future. In Rome, the temple to Janus was opened only when Rome was at war. During peace time, presumably because the future was more certain, the doors of the temple remained closed. They were last opened in AD 531 immediately prior to an invasion by the Goths. We all know how well that turned out.
Environmentalists are reacting to the natural gas bonanza in three ways. The first group, which we may define as “pragmatists”, see a hopeful face based on solid evidence that natural gas helps with achieving multiple environmental goals by reducing particulate emissions, sulfur emissions, NOX levels and CO2 emissions. They acknowledge natural gas fueled generators emit approximately 40% less CO2 per kilowatt hour than the older coal-fired units they are largely replacing. Although the aftermath of the recession has reduced the use of most other fuels, natural gas now rivals coal as the major fuel source for power generation in the US.
A second group, the “environmental fatalists” are less impressed with the displacement effects on coal but appreciate that natural gas plants provide crucial support when mandated, for intermittent renewable power options, such as solar and wind. Once renewables represent approximately 10% of aggregate capacity, negative side effects of these “intermittent” sources become problematic; too much dependence on them can cause grid “instability” or, in a worse case, cascading power failures and massive blackouts.
Then there’s the third group, we’ll call the “ideologues.”