All Articles Leadership From ARPA-E: Shale natural gas is king, but what happens next?

From ARPA-E: Shale natural gas is king, but what happens next?

4 min read


SmartBrief senior editor James daSilva spent two days this week at the Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy’s Energy Innovation Summit in National Harbor, Md. The conference highlights the Energy Department unit’s funding success in supporting clean-tech and clean-energy innovations until they can tap venture capital. On Wednesday, former President Bill Clinton mentioned the importance of shale natural gas, then an afternoon session looked at how to take advantage of the opportunity.

The natural gas boom came to metropolitan Washington, D.C., this week, as all of the solar, wind, biofuel and battery innovation funded by ARPA-E could distract only so much from America’s energy game changer.

Wednesday brought a panel, appropriately titled “Making the Most of the Natural Gas Boom,” that discussed the global nature of the shale-gas boom, byproducts and uses that the resource could engender and continuing public and environmental concerns that could harm production.

Shale natural gas remains a promising field for technological innovation, but it’s already in extensive use. In this way, it is different from ARPA-E’s grant winners, which are promising technologies and advancements that haven’t quite hit the market. For shale, the question of “Will it happen?” has passed, and the world is looking to us for guidance as it seeks to mine its own shale. As former President Bill Clinton said, “We need to remove the ambivalence” about natural gas. “We’re going to take it out of the ground.”

This stance isn’t limited. State Department energy-resources official Robert Cekuta said China, India and parts of Europe are interested in shale and its technology as they try to find alternate energy sources. “We need an all-of-the-above strategy around the world,” Cekuta said. On Thursday, China announced its estimate of what would be the world’s largest shale-gas reserves, in cubic feet of assets and in recoverable assets.

The U.S. isn’t about to give up its leadership position, panelists said, as having resources and technology means little without the know-how and operational structure that American operators possess. Still, innovation and greater knowledge of fracking technology are needed, and that could be an ideal role for ARPA-E, said John Deutch, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and former head of the CIA.

On another positive note, most concerns expressed by speakers and panelists about hydraulic fracturing, shale gas and its byproducts and uses were borne out of strength:

  • Clinton worried that the great increase in domestic gas and oil input and recoverable reserves would distract efforts to discover long-term renewable replacements, though an “all-of-the-above” approach would seem to guard against this.
  • Panelists and audience members at the natural gas session expressed concerns about balancing exports, vehicle use, market prices and domestic chemical manufacturing. While multiple panelists wondered about the long-term environmental impact, there was probably more concern about public perception than the industry and the government being unable to improve safety measurements and practices.
  • John Hanger of Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott probably expressed the most pessimistic note, saying the industry, but also the government, are “suboptimal” in several areas, including methane leakage. As Deutch said in his introduction, “There’s a very real danger that public concern about the environmental impacts of [unconventional resources] … is going to slow, and perhaps even stop, this tremendous economic opportunity.”

Shell executive Russell Ford suggested that safety is a result, not a problem, and that diligence is the answer. “[Safety] doesn’t take technological breakthroughs. … It takes sound operational practices,” Ford said. Because of this, he could see a role for proper regulation, as well as targeted science to discover answers. Most importantly, Ford said, the industry knows it will learn as science and technology develop, and it will apply those lessons to further improve fracking practices.

Like almost everything at ARPA-E, these discussions were in the present but about the future. As Cekuta said in his closing statement, “We’re at the beginning of the story.”