What will be the legacy of cheap natural gas? Until recently, natural gas in the United States was 3-4 times as expensive as it is today. With advances in technology, costs have dropped precipitously. Natural gas prices ended the other day at $2.32 per MMBtu. 18 months ago a MMBtu sold for $5.50 on the open market and in late 2005, early 2006, it was in the $15 range (6 times more than today’s price).
Benefits resulting from cheap natural gas abound. There has been a spike in manufacturing and construction in this country as a result of the lowered costs. Carbon dioxide emissions from natural gas are much lower than oil and coal, two of its competitors. U.S dependence on foreign oil dropped to its lowest point since the mid 1990s. In his most recent State of the Union, President Obama mentioned that his “administration will take every possible action to safely develop” natural gas as there are serious environmental debates about hydraulic fracturing (or fracking), the technology that has enabled access to previous remote stores. The president went on to state “Iâ€™m requiring all companies that drill for gas on public lands to disclose the chemicals they use. Because America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk.”
The health risk is an important one. While natural gas reduces emissions, fracking is not without issues. A recent article on NPR makes the connection between cheap natural gas and the struggling renewable energy sector. Economic growth is the gold standard in this country. Unfortunately, it is not the same as smart growth. Even more worrisome is that growth cannot exist ad infinitum in a finite system. Eventually we’ll run out of materials. This is why renewable energy makes so much sense. However, even renewable energy (which more often than not relies on finite minerals) does not represent the path of strong sustainability.
In the end cheap natural gas is just a stopgap on the way to something else. Perhaps it can allow for concurrent development of renewable sources of energy. The NPR story makes the argument that it cannot act as a bridge, but in some respects it has to be just that.