With a $1.5 million grant from the Sloan Foundation, a team of energy scientists, engineers and economists at The University of Texas at Austin will conduct the first detailed, comprehensive assessment of the country's fastest growing major source of energy, natural gas from shale formations, or shale gas, likely to be one of the country's key fuels over the next 50 years.
Though only a minor source of energy 10 years ago, unconventional gas -- shale gas, coalbed gas and tight gas -- now accounts for almost half of all U.S. natural gas production thanks to technological breakthroughs and development of five major basins. Despite the importance of the resource, estimates of its U.S. reserves fluctuate considerably from as low as 420 trillion cubic feet, or about 20 years' supply at current consumption levels, to 870 trillion cubic feet, or about 44 years' supply.
"If history teaches us anything, these reserves will grow through time with improved technology," says Dr. Scott Tinker, principal investigator on the grant and director of the university's Bureau of Economic Geology in the Jackson School of Geosciences.
The study will rely on publicly available production data sets, geologic expertise and energy economics to provide a more accurate prediction of the amount of shale gas in place, the amount that can be recovered and the likely production rates in the U.S., while offering policymakers a roadmap for the infrastructure demands needed to develop the resource.
"Shale gas could extend natural gas production in the U.S. another 50 to 100 years," says Tinker, "and have a similar global impact, if developed."
Tinker notes natural gas' environmental challenges include increases in water and land use, greenhouse gas emissions and traffic and noise from its development. Natural gas' emissions record is mixed, because it has lower emissions than equivalent energy from coal or oil, which industrialized countries will continue to use in coming decades.
On the positive side, natural gas is a versatile fuel, available for transportation, heating and electricity generation, and it can enhance U.S. energy security, since it is available, affordable, reliable and contributes as a domestic resource to the U.S. economy.
Learn more about unconventional gas and oil research at the Bureau of Economic Geology.