A Greener Fuel… and a Greener Future?

February 26, 2010

By Nick Horton

The Pacific Northwest is blessed with a profusion of
hydroelectric power and a burgeoning wind energy industry. As a result,
Washington residents pay some of the lowest electric rates in the United
States.

But to respond to increasing demand, the area needs new
sources of energy. Enter shale gas, a form of natural gas that is embedded in
shale formations throughout North America. Developers in British Columbia’s
Horn River region-the extreme northeastern corner of the province-have
discovered one of the continent’s largest shale gas fields. Researchers
estimate that the Horn River Shale could hold up to 50 trillion cubic feet of
recoverable natural gas, enough to meet more than 20 years of current U.S.
demand.

Locked in dense shale formations, this gas was unreachable
by traditional vertical wells. New horizontal drilling techniques have now
rendered it accessible from dozens of massive shale gas fields across North
America. As a result, natural gas prices are predicted to remain stable for
years to come-a claim that other fossil fuel producers cannot match.

Natural gas releases roughly half the greenhouse gases of
coal, and local utilities, including Puget Sound Energy, already depend heavily
on natural-gas-fired plants to generate electricity and back up wind-dependent
windmills.

“Here we have a domestic source of gas that’s not running
out, and it’s going to be a lot cheaper,” says Puget Sound Energy CEO Steve
Reynolds. “That’s a game-changer, both for carbon future and domestic energy
supply.”

There is also a downside. Abundant gas is pushing down the
price of power, reducing the profits Seattle City Light earns from selling its
excess hydropower for a profit-and local consumers and taxpayers will feel the
sting.

Environmental activists have also questioned the
sustainability of horizontal drilling, warning that it could pollute
underground water.

Pending Canadian regulatory approval of a new pipeline in
northern B.C., the Horn River Shale is expected to begin producing in the
second quarter of 2011.