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Amid all the talk of alternative energy sources like wind power or solar, there's an old-fashioned fuel that might be even more important. Natural gas is cleaner than other fossil fuels and it's produced in the USA. This week, we're going to take a look at the role of natural gas in our energy future.

NPR's Tom Gjelten is helping us. He's in the studios. Tom, good morning.

TOM GJELTEN: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Okay. Many people already use natural gas to heat our homes. What are the possibilities of doing something else with it?

GJELTEN: Well, for a long time gas was not taken all that seriously. I mean, it was a nice fuel but the view was that there just wasn't enough of it to really get excited about it, and that's what changed. It now looks like we have way more natural gas in this country than we'd thought we did. This could change the whole energy picture.

It's the idea that there is more supply of natural gas than we thought.

INSKEEP: Were there new discoveries?

GJELTEN: No. What we're talking about is actually gas that we've known has been there all along, but it's embedded in rock, shale rock, a mile below the surface of the earth. And until just a few years ago, it didn't seem practical to get the gas out of the rock. So, when we tallied gas reserves in the country, we didn't even bother to count the gas that's in that shale rock.

And what's changed is that gas producers - and this is fairly recent development - gas producers have figured out how to get the gas out of the rock, and as a result there's this gas rush all over the country. Like this place I went to in Pennsylvania. Turns out there is a lot of natural gas under the farmland there.

I found this gas man named Ray Walker, who's moved up to Pennsylvania from Texas a couple years ago to drill new gas wells. He's been in the gas business for about 20 years, but you get Ray talking about this shale gas, he can barely contain himself.

Mr. RAY WALKER: It's the biggest deal I've ever even heard of. It's huge.

GJELTEN: Mr. Walker's standing on a drilling rig about 160 feet tall. The rig serves as a giant brace for an eight-inch drill bit that's slowly turning, working its way deep down into the earth, down 6,000 feet to a layer of shale rock.

(Soundbite of drilling rig)

GJELTEN: The rock is part of what's called the Marcellus formation - 400 million years old, and stretching all the way from New York to West Virginia. It's where Ray Walker is finding gas.

Mr. WALKER: If we were able to get a big enough chunk of Marcellus shale up to the surface and I could break it for you right here, you could strike a match to it and it would light for a little bit.

GJELTEN: But he would have to break the shale, because the gas is embedded in the rock. It seeps out only where there's a crack. And the trick is to break that shale a mile underground. For that, Ray uses water.

Mr. WALKER: So, if we put water in there and enough pressure, the rock has to break. And so as that rock breaks, things slip and shear and all those things start taking place.

GJELTEN: And a little gas seeps out. It's called water fracturing.

Ray Walker's company, Range Resources, uses it extensively, along with horizontal drilling.

(Soundbite of drilling)

GJELTEN: After this drill bit gets down 6,000 feet to the shale rock, an operator slowly turns the bit until it's drilling sideways through the shale. That way the pipe can penetrate more of the rock. It's this combination of water fracturing and horizontal drilling that's made it possible to produce shale gas. It's all new. Range Resources has only been in Pennsylvania for two years. Ray, a senior vice president, didn't learn these techniques back at Texas A&M in the 1980s.

Mr. WALKER: What we used to think the way things worked is now all changed. The ability to produce these shale reservoirs is going to revolutionize this industry all over the world.

GJELTEN: Shale gas may be the number one new energy story right now. In June, the Colorado School of Mines said the new ability to reach unconventional gas deposits means natural gas reserves in the U.S. are now 35 percent higher than they were estimated to be in 2007.

Ian Cronshaw of the International Energy Agency says the production of gas in North America was heading downward as recently as two years ago.

Mr. IAN CRONSHAW (International Energy Agency): Suddenly, since then we've seen this dramatic increase and now we've seen U.S. unconventional gas rise.

GJELTEN: It's as if the United States were suddenly able to produce an extra million-and-a-half barrels of oil each day.

Mr. CRONSHAW: That had happened in the oil industry, that would've been a headline item, but because it's in gas no one seems to pay any attention.

GJELTEN: Nobody paying attention: an old lament of natural gas guys, like Robert Hefner. He's been in the business in Oklahoma for 50 years. All that time he's been claiming there's lots of natural gas in the United States. The big oil and coal companies just pooh-poohed him.

Mr. ROBERT HEFNER: I once had to tell the Exxon people in front of a Congressional committee that I respectfully disagreed with every single thing they had presented.

GJELTEN: But maybe now at the age of 74, Mr. Hefner has been vindicated.

Mr. HEFNER: The nation now - I used to say awash in natural gas - now I say we're drowning in natural gas.

GJELTEN: If Hefner is right, the implications are wide ranging.

Timothy Worth, a former Colorado senator, who now heads the United Nations Foundation, says natural gas can finally challenge coal as America's top domestic energy source.

Former Senator TIMOTHY WORTH (Colorado, United Nations Foundation): The coal industry has been arguing for years that we have to do everything we can to exploit this huge coal reserve. Well, the natural gas reserve is significantly larger. And what's important about it is that natural gas is much, much cleaner than coal.

GJELTEN: When burned, natural gas produces half as much carbon dioxide as coal. Much of the nation's electrical power now generated by burning coal could instead come from natural gas. That would mean a significant decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. And then there are the national security considerations.

Robert Hefner, the Oklahoma gas man, wants to see more American cars running on natural gas instead of the liquid kind that comes from oil.

Mr. HEFNER: If we were to convert half of our existing vehicle fleet, retrofit them to natural gas, we would eliminate a little over half our oil imports.

GJELTEN: There are still skeptics. If gas production is to be increased, it'll have to come from the shale deposits. The market price of natural gas has fallen sharply in recent months, and if it doesn't recover, gas companies may not be able to earn enough to justify the relatively high cost of shale rock operations.

But many environmentalists see natural gas a fuel the nation can use during the transition to renewable energy sources. Christopher Flavin is president of the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research group.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER FLAVIN (President, Worldwatch Institute): Even the International Energy Agency is saying the path for oil is now downward, and suddenly we've got this very different picture for natural gas. I think it's unfortunately not fully percolated into the understanding of what's possible among policymakers. But I think that as that takes hold in the next few years, it's really going to change the game.

GJELTEN: But the natural gas industry needs to be well organized if it's to make its case. In the energy world, bigness generally wins out.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Gjelten is reporting on the possibilities of natural gas this week. And, Tom, is this industry not very big now?

GJELTEN: The problem, Steve, is that the natural gas sector is actually big but it's characterized by very small independent companies. Most of them have just a few dozen employees. The question of how they can compete against big coal, big oil, is a very interesting one. I'm going to get into that tomorrow.

INSKEEP: Okay. We'll be listening, thanks. NPR's Tom Gjelten.

GJELTEN: Thank you, Steve.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: And you can find an interactive map of natural gas resources in the U.S. by going to NPR.org.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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