The Shale Gas Revolution and the Promise of Renewable Energy

frackingShale gas is a form of natural gas found trapped in shale rock. For a few years now, there has been talk of a shale gas glut, a shale gas boom, a shale gas revolution. In his last State of the Union Address, President Obama said, “We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly one hundred years, and my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy”.1 Developing shale gas could create six hundred new jobs by the end of the decade. It could lead to the United States becoming a net exporter of energy.2 As luck would have it, natural gas is the cleanest of the fossil fuels, emitting half as much CO2 as coal. The US’s greenhouse-gas emissions were 9% lower in 2011 than they were in 2007, largely due to the displacement of coal by natural gas.2

Many refer to shale gas as a blessing.3 The United States is indeed blessed to have a hundred year supply of this gas, but no more than it is blessed to have a permanent supply of wind or sunshine. The shale gas revolution isn’t the result of an unexpected miracle. We haven’t discovered more natural gas: there is as much of this resource now as there ever was before. The reason for this surge, the real game-changer, is new technology.3 In 2003, when modern horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques were new, one billion cubic feet of shale gas was produced per day. By 2011, this number grew to twenty billion.4

Before 2003, it was difficult to extract shale gas. Unlike more conventional natural gas reservoirs, shale gas is found spread across large areas. For example, the Marcellus Shale contains 1.9 trillion cubic feet of gas, but this gas is dispersed across nine states.5 Therefore horizontal drilling, rather than vertical drilling, is a more efficient method of extraction. First, a drill makes a hole in the ground that extends below the deepest fresh water source. Then, casing and cement are inserted into this hole to seal it from the surrounding soil and prevent groundwater contamination. Starting at five hundred feet above the shale, the drill begins to bend to the side, eventually yielding a well bore that sits horizontally for thousands of feet in the reservoir.6

Once the well bore is drilled, engineers extract the gas by perforating and fracking the well. First, they insert a perforating gun into the well. An electric current passed to the gun then creates small holes in the casing and cement. While other reservoirs naturally contain fractures through which gas can travel and enter the well, shale plays are tight, compressed formations. This is why the well must be “fracked” or hydraulically fractured, by passing water, sand, and chemicals into it at very high pressures. This pressure cracks the shale rock, releasing natural gas into the well.6

Geologists once believed that it was impossible to extract gas from shale. The process of converting impossibility into reality was a slow one. While fracking was first developed in the 1940s, it took until the 1990s for it to become economically viable.7 The pieces came together with contributions from private companies, ingenious businessmen like George Mitchell (who is often credited with the shale gas boom), and the federal government. In the late 1960s, the Atomic Energy Commission and the Department of Energy conducted federally funded experiments proving that gas could be recovered from rock. The federal government poured money into the program: one hundred million towards fracking research and billions more in tax breaks.7 This investment has paid off. Natural gas is now profitable. It sells for $2.50 per million BTUs, which is equivalent to $15 per barrel of oil. An actual barrel of oil, on the other hand, costs $93.8

The shale gas boom reduces our dependence on coal and foreign oil. But if we aren’t careful, it could crowd out renewable energy as well. This would be dangerous for two reasons. First, substituting coal and oil with natural gas will reduce CO2 emissions by no more than 50%.9 This is not far enough. Climatologists believe that industrialized nations must reduce emissions by 80% before 2050.10 Second, whether we like it or not, our supply of natural gas will eventually run out. Shale gas should be treated as a bridge fuel – a cost-effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the short term, while continuing the development of zero carbon technologies for the long term.3 This can be done by allowing shale gas to dislodge coal, while pursuing federal subsidies and tax breaks for renewable energy.

Solar EnergyThe Obama administration’s all-of-the-above approach to energy policy provides twelve times more money in subsidies to renewable energy than it does to fossil fuels.11 Fledging solar and wind companies need these subsidies to stay afloat, as they are competing with fossil fuel companies that already have trillions of dollars of infrastructure in place.12 Many of these subsidies are set to expire or be dramatically reduced in the next few years. One example is the 30% tax credit to solar energy, covering the cost of installed equipment, which will drop to 10% by 2016.12 There is significant opposition to renewing these subsidies, even though they might be required to prevent these companies from going bankrupt for some time yet.

The Obama administration is not proposing permanent or even long-term subsidies for renewable energy. Instituting such subsidies would reduce CO2 emissions and ensure the availability of energy for future generations. But in the process, people would pay more money for energy, when cheaper (albeit less green alternatives) are available. This is understandably unpalatable, especially when family incomes are shrinking and jobs are difficult to come by. The best way to reduce CO2 emissions is to invest in research and innovation: to finance breakthroughs that will make the cost of harnessing wind and solar power truly competitive with that of fossil fuels. The purpose of temporary tax breaks and subsidies is merely to ensure that the renewable energy industry stays alive in the meanwhile.

Mired in controversy, the story of shale gas is far from over and its future as yet insecure. However, the shale gas revolution does teach us a valuable lesson. It shows us that we don’t have to sacrifice the economy for the environment. Here, human ingenuity, with the help of private and federal aid, led to a revolutionary, economically viable method with which to extract gas from shale. Because of its low cost, shale gas has challenged coal and other fuels in the power generation industry. As a result, the US’s carbon dioxide emissions have dropped to their lowest levels in decades. 13


  1. Toxics Targeting. “Shale Gas Referenced in President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union Address.” Accessed January 19, 2013.
  2. Zakaria, Fareed. “The New Oil and Gas Boom.” Time Magazine, October 29, 2012, 20-21.
  3. Brooks, David. “Shale Gas Revolution.” New York Times (US), November 3, 2011, Op-Ed. Accessed January 19, 2013.
  4. Bergman, Arthur E., and Lynn F. Pittinger. “U.S. Shale Gas: Less Abundance, Higher Cost.” The Oil Drum. Last modified August 5, 2011. Accessed January 19, 2013.
  5. King, Hobart. “Marcellus Shale – Appalachian Basin Natural Gas Play.” News and Information about Geology. Accessed January 19, 2013.
  6. Horizontal Drilling Animation.” Oklahoma’s Oil and Natural Gas Producers and Oil Owners (OERB). Video file. Posted 2011. Accessed January 19, 2013.
  7. Nordhause, Ted, and Michael Shellenberger. “Lessons from the Shale Revolution.” The American, February 22, 2012. Accessed January 19, 2013.
  8. Rotman, David. “King Natural Gas.” MIT Technology Review, August 21, 2012. Accessed January 19, 2013.
  9. Hassok, Susan Joy. Emissions Reductions Needed to Stabilize Climate.
  10. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Future of Natural Gas.
  11. Wheeler, John. “Subsidies for Nuclear Power: Is it Really a Tax?” theenergycollective. Podcast audio. December 27, 2012. Accessed January 19, 2013.
  12. Muro, Mark, and David Kreutzer. “Do We Need Subsidies for Solar and Wind Power?” Wall Street Journal. Accessed January 19, 2013.
  13. The Knowledge Behind the News: Law and Public Policy. Last modified August 29, 2012. Accessed January 19, 2013.
  14. Image credit (Creative Commons): All Clear Media. Pennsylvania Well Fracking. Flickr.
  15. Image credit (Creative Commons): Ray, Mike. Solar Energy. Flickr. April 26, 2010. Accessed January 19, 2013.

Prathima Radhakrishnan is a third year student from the University of Chicago majoring in the biological sciences and biochemistry and minoring in creative writing. She is also a Senior Editor for The Triple Helix Online. More articles about President Obama’s science policy are being published through the rest of January 2013.