As the price of oil continues its upward trend, there are concerns about future energy supplies and the impact high costs will have on a struggling economy. But many experts in the energy field believe an answer is at hand in the form of natural gas, supplies of which are growing thanks mostly to new drilling techniques in shale rock. Many people in the energy sector see natural gas as the fuel of the future.
In the past few years, there has been a dramatic increase in estimates of natural gas reserves in the United States, thanks in large part to the use of hydraulic fracturing in shale deposits. Fracturing involves the use of high-pressure water, chemicals and sand to make fissures in rock where gas is trapped deep below the earth's surface.
University of Houston chemical engineer and energy expert Michael Economides says the sudden increase in gas reserves could change the world's energy picture.
"I think we are poised right now for natural gas to make a major move, because it has all the right elements to become the premier fuel of the world economy in the not-too-distant future," noted Economides.
U.S. development of its natural gas resources could reduce dependence on foreign sources of energy and some political analysts believe liquefied natural gas could be exported across the Atlantic to undermine Russia's periodic threats to cutoff European customers. Michael Economides agrees.
"Twenty-five European countries depend for more than 75 percent of their oil and gas on Russia," Economides added. "Now, if for instance, the United States, with all this gas, can actually export gas to Western Europe, it turns the whole energy independence conundrum on its head, because we clearly have enough gas to change the equation in Europe."
Most natural gas is used for heating homes, cooking food and running power plant generators, while oil is the primary fuel used for transportation. But there are proposals to convert truck fleets to natural-gas burning engines and abandon pollution-prone coal plants for gas-powered generators that would support an increased use of electric automobiles.
Natural gas produces close to 50 percent less carbon dioxide than coal and less air pollution in general than oil, something Michael Economides says should draw support from environmentalists.
"Natural gas, which has a lot of advantages, should be the darling of environmentalists as well as business people," he noted.
But, while many environmental groups do give natural gas its place in the energy mix, some have expressed concerns over possible contamination of water resources through fracturing. The Environmental protection agency is making a major study of the issue.
Former Shell Oil president John Hofmeister, who heads the group Citizens for Affordable Energy, says the oil and gas industry should take the matter seriously.
"I think if we are enforcing standards, regulated standards, that all companies have to apply and we have monitoring of these standards, then I think we can come to a sustainable formula for drilling an adequate supply of future gas reserves, which will keep us well supplied with energy for decades and decades to come," said Hofmeister.
One expert who has looked at the issue closely for many years is David Burnett, a scientist at the Global Petroleum Research Institute at Texas A&M University. He says proper disposal of water used in the process is the main concern.
"The drilling and fracturing of gas shales is completely benign, the surface footprint of drilling operations is pretty noticeable and the disposal of the water as it comes back is of concern," noted Burnett. "Most of us now, I think, do not allow people to discharge that water that comes back into any sort of surface waterway or any public water supplies or anything like that."
If the environmental concerns can be fully addressed, some experts say, natural gas could become a much cheaper and a much more reliable alternative to the various renewable energies like wind and solar, which represent less than two percent of the current energy mix and are dependent on large government subsidies.
Based on International Energy Administration estimates, the University of Houston's Michael Economides says the world has nearly 300 years worth of natural gas at current levels of usage.
But he says there may be even more in the form of frozen gas on the ocean floor, called natural gas hydrates. If the gas hydrates can be extracted in a commercially viable way, Economides believes the world could have as much as a thousand years worth of the fuel.