Coal gas is formed by the partial combustion of coal, natural gas (NG), on the other hand, occurs as a hazard in most coal mines. As the coal is mined the pressure comes off the coal, or it is fragmented, and the natural gas can escape. Once it reaches a certain concentration in the air it becomes explosive, and a heat source (a metal pick rubbing on sandstone for example) can ignite it, causing ignition of the gas, with a consequent disaster as those in the mine vicinity can be killed. Thus there are many precautions (which I will describe at another time) to stop that ignition, or to stop the flame from spreading very far.
But the natural gas can also be collected, and if it is collected in a purer form than that diluted by the ventilation currents of the working mine, it becomes a valuable resource, which the British miners now use to help power the mining process itself.
Sixteen generators are installed across 5 deep mine sites. These embedded generating sets are fuelled exclusively on mines gas. Some of the electricity generated is used at UK COAL sites representing a substantial energy cost saving.However this harmonious use of the fuel projects a different attitude than that which existed as the National Coal Board died. And now that same struggle may be gearing up for a rematch in the United States, as the growing surplus of natural gas leads industry leaders to press Congress about forcing coal’s replacement with NG as part of the new Clean Energy Initiative. So far it hasn’t worked.
For all its pronouncements that gas could be used to replace aging, inefficient coal-fired power plants — and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the process — lawmakers from coal-producing states appear committed to keeping coal as the nation’s primary producer of power.
However the folks at Chesapeake are now starting to face off against those of Peabody to try and influence the Senate version of Waxman-Markey. And the debate brings renewable energies into the picture, not necessarily to NG’s advantage. (Which is a little odd given that NG plants are generally considered the back-up power when the wind don’t blow or the sun don’t shine).
“By allowing free emission allowances to maintain coal production from existing coal plants, while providing mandates that there be more wind and solar, you squeeze gas out in the middle,” said William F. Whitsitt, an executive vice president at Devon Energy, a major natural gas producer.This is not really something that it easily fixed in the marketplace, since the return on investment needed for the construction of a major power plant requires that there be a sustained market for the power produced, and concurrently a reliable cost-effective source of the fuel that will be required to generate the electricity for a significant portion of the plant lifetime.
Now the U.S. currently has a glut of natural gas. As a result futures have fallen to $2.508 per million Btu (give or take equal to 1 kcf). This has to start hurting some of the producers since, inter alia, Chesapeake has noted that it is costing them around $4.44 million to drill new wells in the Marcellus, a field in which they anticipate being the biggest player. The company is still very positive about that development – but notice the long-term price they are expecting to justify that optimism:
Based on drilling results by Chesapeake and others in the industry, the company has recently increased its targeted average EUR in the Marcellus from 3.75 bcfe per well to 4.2 bcfe per well. Assuming flat NYMEX natural gas prices of $7.00 per kcf (compared to a recent 10-year NYMEX strip price of approximately $7.02 per kcf), the company’s estimated pre-tax rate of return from a 4.2 bcfe horizontal Marcellus well drilled for $4.5 million is approximately 71% excluding the benefit of drilling carries and more than 1,000% including the benefit of drilling carries.Back in March Chesapeake was reducing its production from the Haynesville shale however, back then they were also predicting that the drop in drilling activity would produce results before the end of the year.
During March 2009, most Mid-Continent natural gas prices at major interstate pipeline delivery points will average around $2.70 per thousand cubic feet, a price at which most natural gas production is unprofitable. We believe low wellhead prices combined with constrained capital availability will likely cause U.S. drilling activity to decline well beyond the 40% drop already seen since August 2008. As a result, U.S. natural gas production will begin to dramatically decline before the end of 2009 and consequently natural gas markets will regain better supply/demand balance by the end of 2009, if not sooner.Given the continued excess in the marketplace, it would be nice if the NG industry could find a reliable market of greater size in power generation. They have already managed to corner around 25% of that market – but as yet have not managed to convince folk, such as the manager of our local power plant (which is already constructed to burn natural gas, but which blanked off the nozzles) to switch back.
Perhaps he, like so many others, realizes that as soon as the glut goes away, and the short-lived nature of the gas shale wells being what it is, that will likely happen within the year, then the price will go back up, and it will become less economic than the current coal contract.
Hence the desire of the natural gas companies to get a little more assistance from Congress in the struggle for the future.
It depends on how well they sell, and how well the coal companies manage to resist. All tied up with the debate about climate change, which seems to be less certain with recent publications (in New Scientist among other places) suggesting that the globe may cool for a while before reheating, this could be an interesting debate. And perhaps one with less certain an outcome than the British experience.