By Mark Huffman

June 28, 2010
With a blown deep-water oil well spewing thousands of barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, oil is looking less attractive to some as an energy source. Could natural gas be a potential replacement?

Energy researchers at MIT think it could play a much bigger role in our energy future, especially as a replacement for coal, used to create electricity. In a report, the researchers predict gas-fired generators will eventually replace older, inefficient coal plants.

They aren't alone. Others see gas as a much more desirable energy source that, not only could produce electricity, but also power the nation's cars and trucks.

Natural gas is abundant and, best of all, it's plentiful in the United States. Some business leaders, including T. Boone Pickens, have argued for years in favor of increased reliance on U.S. natural gas, saying it would greatly reduce reliance on foreign oil and keep more U.S. dollars at home.

The MIT researchers like it for another reason. Unlike oil and coal, natural gas is a very clean fuel.

The just-completed two-year study, managed by the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), examined the scale of U.S. natural gas reserves and the potential of this fuel to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Based on the work of the multidisciplinary team, with advice from a board of 16 leaders from industry, government and environmental groups, the report examines the future of natural gas through 2050 from the perspectives of technology, economics, politics, national security and the environment.

92-year energy supply

The researchers note the U.S. has a significant natural gas resource base, enough to equal about 92 years' worth at present domestic consumption rates. Much of this is from unconventional sources, including gas shales.

While there is substantial uncertainty surrounding the producibility of this gas, the researchers said, there is a significant amount of shale gas that can be affordably produced.

Not surprisingly, the natural gas industry hailed the report.

"We hope that policymakers will read and consider the report's recommendation for greater use of natural gas as they develop plans to help our country move to a secure, economically beneficial and cleaner way of using energy," America's Natural Gas Alliance said in a statement.