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Predicting when energy reserves will run out varies among experts

Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, 7:24 p.m.

The Department of Energy predicts there is enough recoverable natural gas in America to meet nearly a century's worth of growing demand and enough coal to last about two centuries.

That doesn't factor potential for energy rushes like the one happening in the Marcellus shale region that includes most of Pennsylvania, where natural gas production has soared almost sevenfold in four years to 13 billion cubic feet a day, according to December data from the Energy Department's Energy Information Administration.

“We're producing enough natural gas in Pennsylvania in 70 days to meet Pennsylvania's demands for the year,” Marcellus Shale Coalition spokesman Patrick Creighton said.

The boom has helped spur billions of dollars in development, including construction of the growing Southpointe complex in Cecil that's home to 60 energy companies. It's drawn interest from oil giant Royal Dutch Shell, which is considering whether to build a multibillion-dollar plant in Beaver County to convert ethane from natural gas into chemicals for plastics, antifreeze and other products.

But there are environmental concerns, too. Penn State professor and geologist Terry Engelder, who became internationally known and criticized by many for predictions about rich natural gas deposits in the Marcellus shale, doesn't think the supply of finite resources, such as natural gas and coal, are in danger of running out.

“I believe natural gas is a bridge fuel that will allow us to reform our appetite for hydrocarbon fuel and move to more sustainable manners of energy,” Engelder said. Of the world's reliance on hydrocarbon fuels such as natural gas, petroleum and coal, he said, “By God, we better be off this in 40 years.”

Some of Engelder's contemporaries disagree.

“I don't view natural gas as a bridge to another source of energy. This is the other source,” said Greg Wrightstone, a petroleum geologist who heads McCandless-based Wrightstone Energy Consulting.

Wrightstone agrees that new sources are likely to emerge. They, too, could be hydrocarbons. He said the “next big thing” might be finding a way to unlock natural gas known as methane hydrates that are trapped in ice crystals in Arctic permafrost and oceans. The Energy Department has said that supply could exceed all other known fossil fuels.

Wrightstone thinks there's at least 800 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas in the Marcellus shale. That could meet the nation's demand for natural gas for more than three decades, based on the current appetite of about 25 trillion cubic feet a year.

Engelder made waves six years ago when he and fellow geologist Gary Lash predicted the then-little-known Marcellus formation could contain 50 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. He later upped that to 489 trillion cubic feet, in a prediction he describes as conservative — just like his now-underestimated one that daily Marcellus production wouldn't reach 12 billion cubic feet until at least 2015.

Agreement on the size of the energy reserves, how long they will last and what economic impact they might have is almost impossible. Even government agencies, which tend to offer the most conservative estimates, vary.

The Energy Information Administration said in its 2012 annual report that the Marcellus contained 141 trillion cubic feet of “unproved technically recoverable” reserves, down from an estimate a year earlier of more than 400 trillion cubic feet. The Geological Survey, released between EIA reports, put undiscovered reserves at 84.2 trillion cubic feet.

Nationwide, EIA says there are 2,327 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, enough to last about 92 years based on current demand.

Industry officials dismissed claims that the EIA's decision to slash the Marcellus figure showed that drilling advocates had been overstating estimates — telling the Trib then that as companies kept charting the Marcellus formation, they moved more gas from unproven to proven reserves.

The EIA estimates 259 billion short tons of recoverable coal are left in the United States, including 11.3 billion short tons in Pennsylvania. Based on current production, the EIA said the nation's supply will last 236 years, though anticipated increased production could exhaust the reserves in 194 years if no new ones are found.

The Colorado-based nonprofit group Clean Energy Action disputed those projections in a scathing October report.

“The fundamental fact is that most of the coal in the United States is buried too deeply to be accessed easily, and we are rapidly approaching the end of accessible U.S. coal deposits that can be mined profitably,” said Zane Selvans, a Clean Energy Action geologist and assistant research director.

Selvans says that “coal's days are likely numbered.”

John Pippy, a former state senator who heads the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, said, “There are a lot more people who are experts in geology and in the field who believe (the EIA's) numbers are accurate. I'm going to side with the overwhelming number of experts.”

Pippy said the biggest challenge is what he describes as government overregulation, not supply. He says proposed regulations would stand in the way of building new coal-fired power plants that are 90 percent cleaner than old ones; coal-fired plants provide about 40 percent of Pennsylvania's power.

“If environmentalists truly cared, they would be fighting for us to build new plants,” Pippy said.

John Staub, who heads the exploration and production team in the EIA's Office of Petroleum Natural Gas and Biofuels Analysis, doesn't think the United States is in danger of exhausting its energy resources.

“The Stone Age didn't end because of a lack of stones. Most fuels will never run out, but there will be an evolution in terms of what people are willing to pay for extraction to use them,” Staub said.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or




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