Can Natural Gas Replace Coal?

| March-April 2010

The discovery of a gigantic natural gas deposit under the eastern United States has energy watchers discussing what it means for the power mix. Technology Review (Nov.-Dec. 2009) reports that the gas-rich Marcellus shale layer could supply enough natural gas for the country for 90 years at current consumption rates, or 50 years even if we used it to totally replace coal. That’s welcome news for the green movement, given that natural gas burns cleaner, producing less carbon dioxide.

Kicking our coal habit won’t be easy, of course. The lumpy black stuff is cheaper than natural gas, making it more attractive to power producers. Detroit still isn’t making cars and trucks that run on natural gas and, even if they did, there’s no refueling infrastructure in place. Finally, federal energy policy, which erroneously considers natural gas a “declining resource,” offers few incentives to increase use of the fuel.

The ground is shifting, though. As Congress debates new energy policies, there will no doubt be conversations about a cap and trade on carbon emissions that would drive utilities toward natural gas, as well as requirements that it be part of a utility’s energy mix. “I don’t think natural gas is an alternative to renewables,” Stanford geophysics professor Mark Zoback tells Technology Review, “but I do think it is by far the best fuel to use as we transition away from fossil fuels.”

The United States should take a cue from Asia-Pacific countries, where natural-gas vehicles are prevalent. Many of them have already been converted from gasoline, and Technology Review reports that the Colorado-based nonprofit Envirofit has developed a fuel-injection kit that increases efficiency and decreases emissions. Owners can buy the $300 setup with microloans, and by saving fuel it pays for itself in six months.

5/12/2010 7:49:43 AM

What is the point of discussing automobiles in a discussion about coal vs natural gas? As far as I know Detroit hasn't built coal burning cars either. Natural Gas vehicles do exist in fleet vehicles for UPS and some municipalities.

doug lass_4
4/15/2010 11:27:41 AM

Why not tap the nations sewage treatment plants? I know it probably won't provide all the natural gas needed, but if you consider using grass clippings and leaves among other things that would be put through methane digesters it could provide some of the natural gas needs of the country.

4/15/2010 8:28:32 AM

Another question is to the idea that Fossil Gas has a smaller carbon foot print than coal. There is considerable information to show that once you take into account the carbon emitted in the process of obtaining the gas, it is NOT a cleaner fuel. This process requires extensive truck traffic to bring in the toxic chemicals and to transport the MILLIONS of gallons of water used in the fracking process. There are also diesel powered compressor stations that run 24/7 to power the activities at the drill pad. Escaping gas from the well adds methane to the atmosphere which is a potent greenhouse gas. It's time to stop wasting our time on dirty technologies.

4/15/2010 8:22:23 AM

Before you jump on the bandwagon for Horizontal Slickwater Hydrofracking for gas held in shale deposits, you might want to do some research. has a great deal of information including links to public talks given by experts on the subject. Another choice might be to Google Dimmock PA., or better yet, to visit. This type of gas well uses toxic fluids under tremendous pressure to shatter these deep shale formations to release trapped gas. Much of these toxic fluids remain behind to leach through the cracks and threaten groundwater. The fluids that come back up are contaminated with heavy metals and radioactivity from the shale. These fluids are held in open, often unlined, cesspools that are prone to leaking. These by products are disposed by pumping into old dead wells, transported to municipal sewage treatment plants that often don't have the capability to handle them (hard to know if we don't know the chemicals in them), and sludge may be sent to public landfills. (check out Chemung County NY) IF and I say IF these procedures would give us 90 years of power, would the destruction of our land be worth it? That's one lifetime. One lifetime to change the beautiful countryside of the Northeast, into a web of well pads, toxic cesspools, highways buzzing with trucks carrying hazardous materials in and toxic waste out. And contaminating our air, water and soil in the process. Is it worth it? I don't think so.

sandra cundiff
4/14/2010 8:59:05 PM

I ran out of room. If you want more information on drilling, please read the interview with Dr Theo Colborn on endocrine disruptors in the chemicals of "fracking" used in drilling for gas. Link: Or go to and look for their gas drilling articles. There is plenty to find. Do not believe that this is the answer to all our problems. It is not. It only creates more. Also watch Gasland by Josh Fox who won a special award at Sundance which will be shown on HBO in June. A must see. It shows what is really going on with gas drillling. Gas drillling and chemical "fracking" are not good things for humans or the environment. Please be informed.

sandra cundiff
4/14/2010 8:36:04 PM

Just to inform. I live over the Marcellus Shale deposit. I am terrified. They pump a recipe of chemicals down a well that is somewhere between 1 mile and 2 miles deep. The well turns parallel to the ground and travels UNDER property. This recipe of chemicals is a proprietary one owned by Halliburton.(Remember who they are?) While Cheney was in office, gas drilling was exempt from the Clean Water Act. So guess what. That recipe is poisonous. I just had my well tested as a baseline to stand up in court. Do any of you realize that this drilling can and probably will contaminate the water in the North East? If they ruin an aquifer, it is gone for good. The way the leases read, they are not responsible for contaminating anyone's well. This could be "Love Canal". Anyone remember that? They leave 40% of this poison in the ground. Exactly where do I get water from if they ruin my well. I lived in NYC for 15 years. This area is the watershed for NYC. Are they going to let millions of people drink poison water? Also, they have to get permits to "take" millions of gallons from the Deleware and other water tributories. It takes 1 million gallons of water to drill one well. They are planning hundreds in this area. Think twice before you become fans of this drilling. My home is paid for. Do you think I can sell it for what it is worth knowing what is coming? Please research. I did for a whole year. I am not pleased with what I found. If you were in my place, you would not like this.

2/27/2010 5:54:45 AM

How terribly disappointing to find this piece of irresponsible "reporting." You got your figures of "90 years" right from the industry's shills. Any chance of you checking facts on this one? Please? Worse than the reporting, is your basic premise. Replace one fossil fuel with another? Natural gas is clean? Have you ever seen the havoc drilling sites wreak on the environment? Our addiction to bad energy sources shouldn't be replaced with other bad energy sources. That's like saying your mother is a drunk because she's addicted to bourbon - so let's get her some rye. The transition argument is a red herring. If half the money spent on lobbying, drilling, paying off elected officials and cleaning up spills was spent on developing clean energy sources, the transition would be unnecessary. It is unforgivable that you "reported" this issue and gave absolutely no space to the consequences of drilling for this dirty little canard. The effective destruction of towns like DISH, Texas, the "mandatory inclusion" (re: theft) of resources from people who don't want to sign leases with gas companies, the toxic spills, contamination of water supplies (as well as the lies that deny proven incidents), the branding of anyone who applies critical thought to this issue as an "extremist," "activist," "environmentalist," "socialist," and much worse, well, it goes on forever... Please check out for some eye-opening truths.