Frontiers: Methane: Black hat or white hat in the green economy?

Northwestern North Dakota lit by natural gas flares

Satellite imagery of the Upper Midwest at night shows a massive cluster of light in western North Dakota, easily dwarfing the metropolitan areas of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Milwaukee or even Chicago.

The source of this apparent high plains metropolis isn’t a city at all, but rather the Bakken shale oil field, where producers are flaring as much as 266,000 million cubic feet of natural gas each day.

Portrait: Doug CameronThis abundance of natural gas — mostly composed of methane — was the topic of First Green Partners co-president Doug Cameron’s Frontiers in the Environment lecture last Wednesday, Mar. 26 on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus.

In “Methane: Black Hat or White Hat in the Green Economy,” Cameron discussed the pros and cons of the abundant fuel source and why environmentalists shouldn’t be so quick to discount methane as a “quick fix.”

“Why does it have to be a bridge fuel?” Cameron asked. “It’s abundant, the infrastructure is there, there are bio-based sources of it, it can have environmental benefits, and it’s probably never going to go away. We have plenty to keep us going for hundreds of years. Let’s not reluctantly accept it. Let’s embrace it and see if we can make it work better.”

The resurgence in natural gas is largely a result of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” which has made previously inaccessible gas accessible in places like the Bakken shale oil field. The fracking process is controversial due to environmental concerns, including water usage and pollution. But, according to Cameron, this natural gas boom has its fair share of environmental benefits.

“We have met all of our greenhouse gas reduction mandates up to this point simply by switching from less coal to more natural gas,” Cameron said. “Now, we can’t meet all of our CO2 reductions going on into the future this way, but up to now we have had significant impact on CO2 production simply because of this switch.”

Methane production has become a “unique and unexpected opportunity,” said Cameron. The production boom has already revived the nation’s chemical industry and could provide lower energy costs and fuel for transportation. The environmental concerns are legitimate, but methane may just be a few innovative breakthroughs away from becoming a large piece of the sustainable, green economy.

“Abundant low-cost methane provides a strong economic incentive to develop new technologies, new ideas and new processes,” Cameron said. “So people complain that venture capitalists don’t invest in all of these new green clean technologies, and maybe they don’t as much as we would like. I guarantee you they are investing in and looking at methane.

“The backers of our firm are very interested in it. We spend a huge amount of time looking for new technologies, and if we see good new technologies related to methane, companies will invest in them because you see this huge abundance, this low-cost and this long-term opportunity. It is just stimulating incredible innovation throughout the world.”

Watch Cameron’s full presentation online.

John Sisser is a communications assistant with the Institute on the Environment.
Image courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory.