New Report Highlights Reliability and Resilience of US Natural Gas Systems

A new Natural Gas Council (NGC) report released today highlights the exceptional reliability of U.S. natural gas systems. Examining various aspects of domestic natural gas systems, the report concludes that the robust safeguards and security protocols in place ensure that natural gas continues to be an abundant, highly reliable source of fuel in the U.S.

Thanks to advances in shale development — made possible by hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling — the report notes that production of natural gas has grown almost 30 percent since 2010, with government forecasts projecting a record of nearly 75 billion cubic feet per day by the end of this year.

With such significant production growth — and subsequent affordable prices — natural gas is increasingly relied upon for electricity generation. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), natural gas generators accounted for 42 percent of operating electricity generating capacity in the United States last year. Overall, natural gas provided over one third of electricity generation in 2016, making it the leading generation source in the U.S. The environmental benefits of natural gas have also played a role in its increased use, as the report states that over its lifecycle, natural gas emits only about half the carbon of other fossil fuels when burned, which has helped drive U.S. CO2 emissions to their lowest levels since 1991.

In addition to abundance and environmental benefits, the reliability of natural gas is a major factor in its adoption as the fuel of choice for electricity generators and large-volume energy consumers. In terms of mitigating risks to supply, the NGC report concludes that potential physical disruptions are few and far between. As the report states:

“The physical operation of natural gas production, transmission and distribution make the system inherently reliable and resilient. Disruptions to natural gas service are rare. When they do happen, a disruption of the system does not necessarily result in an interruption of scheduled deliveries of natural gas supplies because the natural gas system has many ways of offsetting the impact of disruptions.” (pg. 6; emphasis added).

Factors such as slower (and therefore more controlled) transportation speed of natural gas through pipeline and diverse geographical supply areas boosts the resiliency of natural gas systems by minimizing the impact of disruption from a single point along the chain. In fact, the report points out that there are currently more than a half million producing gas wells spread across 30 states. Moreover, the ability of natural gas to be effectively stored after production or being converted to liquefied natural gas (LNG) allow for greater control of the fuel’s use and provides a vital cushion for users in case of potential disruption. These factors allow for natural gas systems to also be more resistant to extreme weather than electrical systems, as the report mentions:

“For example, in 2016, fewer than 100,000 natural gas customers nationally experienced disruptions, while 8.1 million Americans experienced power outages.” (pg. 8)

Along with physical reliability, the report notes that natural gas providers are committed to protecting the entire natural gas supply chain from cybersecurity risks. Considered critical infrastructure, the industry partners with cybersecurity experts in the federal government on initiatives to promote risk awareness, share vital information and establish frameworks to minimize cyberattack risks. As the report states:

“Just as with pipeline safety, natural gas utilities apply layers of resilience for cybersecurity by employing firewalls and other tools to improve the prevention, detection and mitigation of cyber penetration.” (pg. 14).

Barry Russell, President and CEO of Independent Petroleum Association of America, which leads the Natural Gas Council in 2017, summarized the report findings best, stating:

“America’s natural gas producers have led a revolution in unlocking the enormous energy potential from shale development. Independent producers account for 85 percent of American natural gas. The benefits of using this abundant, clean-burning resource have been significant: supply security, lower air emissions, reduction in electricity prices. Such benefits can and should continue with greater reliance on natural gas by electric generators. Given the reliability of the nation’s producers, pipelines and distribution network, natural gas should remain an integral component of the electric generation portfolio. The findings in this study provide specific recommendations on how the electric industry can take full advantage of America’s natural gas resources.”

There are countless benefits to natural gas use for electricity generation and fuel. While the massive growth in U.S. production and benefits to air quality get the most attention, this report touches on a lesser discussed but equally important quality: reliability. Thanks to the inherent resilience of U.S. natural gas systems, coupled with industry efforts to manage potential risk, natural gas will be able to maintain its ever increasing share of the U.S. fuel mix for years to come.

This article was authored by Seth Whitehead for Energy In Depth. Click here to read it on the Energy In Depth website.