Shell oil executives didn't get any slack Tuesday at the Aspen Environment Forum despite being one of the major sponsors of the event.
In two separate sessions, serious questions were raised about the viability of using natural gas as a "bridge fuel" between more carbon-intensive fossil fuels and renewables - inadvertently putting Shell officials on the defensive.
In a featured session called "The Great Energy Challenge," moderator David Owen, a writer for the New Yorker, noted that natural gas is "now the 'good' fossil fuel." But he asked a panel of experts if that was actually a good thing. The price of natural gas has dropped so low that it has made it difficult for renewable energy to compete in production of power.
"It is what's taken the wind out of the wind industry," Owen said.
Jim Rogers, president, CEO and chairman of the board of Duke Energy, a major power producer, said natural gas must be part of the portfolio used to generate power. However, he also expressed "serious reservations" about it as a panacea.
Natural gas prices have always been volatile, Rogers noted. Just because it is an inexpensive energy source today doesn't mean it will remain that way. Another big question, he said, is the possible loss of methane in the hydraulic "fracking" process widely used to release gas from rock formations. Water and chemicals are injected into the ground at high pressure to create tiny fractures that release natural gas. The process is being extensively studied for everything from release of chemicals into groundwater to release of methane, which adds to greenhouse gas production.
"We don't really know the environmental implications," Rogers said, referring to the potential methane releases. He stressed there is "no perfect solution" to fueling power plants.
Russ Ford, executive vice president of onshore gas for Shell Upstream America, said the world faces an enormous and growing challenge of generating enough power to match the demands of a growing population while reducing carbon production. Natural gas has to be a big part of the solution, he said, noting it is the "cleanest" of the fossil fuels.
"We have a supply advantage in North America that we've never enjoyed before," he said. Vast reserves of shale gas have been discovered in Pennsylvania, New York and various southern states, and massive fields already exist in Colorado and Wyoming.
Another Shell executive, David Todd, said in a different session at the forum that there's roughly a 100-year supply of natural gas in the U.S. Both men stressed that Shell has invested heavily in the world's use of natural gas in the future. The company has taken "a very big bet there," Ford said. It also supports and finances development of alternative energy sources, the company officials said.
The Aspen Environment Forum is being presented by the Aspen Institute and National Geographic. This year's forum looks at how a world of limited resources will meet the demands of a growing population. Energy was a focus on Tuesday.
In a session Tuesday called "Natural Gas: Methane as Methadone?" Todd, vice president of production for Shell Upstream America, said "I respectively disagree with the Duke Energy [position]."
He said global energy demand will likely double by 2050. Shell supports the use of wind and solar energy to provide more of that supply, but natural gas must be an important "bridge" fuel until renewables are more fully developed, Todd said. In addition, it is needed to complement wind and solar to produce power when the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine.
Shell is committed to producing natural gas in a way that minimizes its carbon footprint, he said. That means drilling wells in ways that drastically reduces "fugitive emissions" of carbon. The company is investing in ways to detect losses of methane so it can eliminate those emissions, he said.
"We're not as good today as we need to be but Shell is probably the best" in the industry, Todd said.
The company is also reducing the greenhouse gas emissions in the production process by installing pipelines for the water-intensive fracking process rather than trucking it all in. It takes between 2 million and 4 million gallons of water to drill a natural gas well, Todd said. Building pipelines to feed water to massive fields can reduce water truck trips by up to 90 percent, he said.
As in the earlier session, Shell's contention that natural gas is a big part of the power supply solution was challenged, to varying degrees. Chuck Kutscher, principal engineer with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., said analysts at the lab agree that natural gas must continue to play a role in energy production. On the positive said, natural gas is 50 percent cleaner than coal when used in power plants, Kutscher said. However, global warming is such a severe problem that switching to coal won't reduce emissions enough to make a dent in the carbon problem, he said.
"Despite the disinformation campaign, climate change is a problem," Kutscher said. Showing remarkable backbone for a bureaucrat, he said climate change is a problem "that politicians are afraid to talk about."
He said fossil fuels should stop being subsidized to the degree they are by the U.S. government. That would help alternative energy sources compete more favorably, he said.
"When fossil fuels are cheap, people are going to pick cheaper fuels" even if there is a detriment to society, Kutscher said.
The biggest challenge to Shell's position on natural gas came from Jigar Shah, CEO of the nonprofit Carbon War Room. As an audience member in the "Methane as Methadone" session, he challenged the concept that natural gas is needed as a bridge or complement to renewables in energy production. It's been proven that solar and wind already have the capacity to handle substantial energy production, he said, drawing a cheer from roughly half the crowd of 40 audience members.
The Aspen Environment Forum continues through Thursday. More can be found at www.aspenenvironment.org.