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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The boom in drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale and other similar formations will likely suppress the development of alternative energies that are urgently needed to combat global warming, according to a new study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology.Researchers highlighted some positive aspects of the boom in drilling for "shale-gas" reserves, such as help in lowering gas prices and stimulating the economy.But they warned that a switch from coal to natural gas alone isn't nearly enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the levels scientists believe are needed to curb the worst impacts of global warming."People speak of gas as a bridge to the future, but there had better be something at the other end of the bridge," said Henry Jacoby, an engineer and economist and lead author of the paper, which was published in the inaugural issue of a new journal, "Economics of Energy and Environmental Policy."In West Virginia and some surrounding states, business and political leaders are pushing hard to encourage continued growth in natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale formation. The drive is heating up, as states race each other to offer economic incentives to lure a natural gas "cracker" plant to one of their communities.Industry supporters say little about recent scientific papers that question whether natural gas really provides improvements over coal in terms of greenhouse emissions or concerns that the gas boom diverts resources and attention from developing renewable energy sources.
In their new paper, Jacoby and his co-authors compared what various electricity prices and greenhouse emissions under several energy supply scenarios including -- and not including -- natural gas from shale formations.Under one scenario, they found that gas prices would rise by about five times their current levels by 2050 without shale gas. Electricity prices would also grow. With shale gas included in the mix, gas prices would only double. The shale input also reduces electricity price growth by 5 percent in 2030 and 10 percent in 2045, compared to a scenario without shale gas.But the researchers also found reason for concern that shale gas use would crowd out development of renewable energy sources.Under one scenario, the researchers imposed a renewable-fuel mandate. The found that, with shale gas, renewable use never goes beyond the 25 percent minimum standard they set. But when shale gas is removed from the market, renewable fuels gain more ground.The paper notes that, without new regulatory restrains, there is little interest in developing technologies such as carbon capture and storage, or CCS, and that "the shale gas reduces interest even further.""The gas 'revolution' has important implications for the direction and intensity of national efforts to develop and deploy low-emission technologies, like CCS for coal and gas," the MIT paper said.Under strict limits on greenhouse gases, renewable sources such as wind are needed, but shale gas development delays such sources by up to two decades, the study said. "While taking advantage of this [shale gas] gift in the short term, treating gas as a 'bridge' to a low-carbon future, it is crucial not to allow the greater ease of the near-term task to erode efforts to prepare a landing at the other end of the bridge."Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org