Assessing natural gas supply and demand
When turning up the thermostat to stave off the winter chill, boiling water for a cup of tea or even just turning on a lamp as the sun begins to set in the evening, do you think about the natural gas being burned to make those seamless parts of your everyday life function?
Natural gas is an essential part of the United States’ energy portfolio, supplying nearly a quarter of the nation’s energy, according to the American Gas Association, and is the cleanest fossil fuel on the market today. But assessing the resource’s recoverable supply and ensuring we have the knowledge to make well-informed decisions about current natural gas usage and how it fits into the nation’s future energy strategy is essential.
That’s where the Potential Gas Committee comes in. The committee publishes a biennial assessment of the United States’ estimated natural gas resource base. The most recent report was led by Stephen Sonnenberg ’81 with support from Cathy Farmer ’79, MS ’81.
We talked to Sonnenberg and Farmer and Eric Roberts, director of the Potential Gas Agency, to learn more about this work and its impact.
Understanding the Potential Gas Committee and Potential Gas Agency
The Potential Gas Committee is made up of approximately 80 knowledgeable and highly experienced volunteer members who work in the natural gas exploration, production, transportation and distribution industries and the technical services and consulting sectors.
The Potential Gas Committee assesses the natural gas resource potential for 90 geologic provinces comprising six geographic areas of the Lower 48 States and Alaska, 56 of which are onshore and 34 offshore. The assessment captures the status of a dynamic system of drilling and appraisal. Potential natural gas resources transition into proven reserves and eventually into flowing natural gas production.
Although the PGC functions independently, the Potential Gas Agency at Mines, housed on the Mines campus since 1964, provides the PGC with guidance, technical assistance, training, administrative support and assistance with member recruitment and outreach.
“Colorado School of Mines has a long history of doing assessments in energy-related businesses and extractive industries, so it was a natural fit for the Potential Gas Agency to be in Golden on the Mines campus since its inception,” Sonnenberg said.
Natural gas—and the PGC’s work—plays an important role in the energy transition.
“Natural gas is the cornerstone of our nation’s energy future. It’s readily available, it’s clean burning and our whole energy grid is set up for natural gas power plants,” Farmer said.
While much of the U.S. is implementing renewable technologies, such as wind and solar, they aren’t always able to provide the reliable and consistent energy required today. “There are gaps,” Farmer explained. “When it’s dark, and the wind isn’t blowing, you have to have something really reliable for the base load. Natural gas is very reliable for that baseload power generation, and we rely on it. We need to use every resource we have.”
And this reliability even goes beyond the U.S. “Natural gas in the energy transition is definitely the most reliable and available transition fuel for countries that don’t typically have natural gas and rely on coal as their primary source of electricity generation,” Roberts said.
Mines alumni played an important role in the PGA’s 2022 assessment, which will help drive informed decision-making.
The PGA’s biennial assessment is a critical document used by Congresspeople and other policymakers to determine how resources are going to be used in the near future. But the PGA faced an unexpected hurdle in 2022 when the PGA’s former director unexpectedly died, leaving the report unfinished.
Sonnenberg stepped in to serve as the interim director, and Farmer volunteered as a senior advisor to provide the statistical analysis and editorial work. Together, with a team of industry volunteers, they were able to finalize the assessment and meet the publication deadline.
Members of Congress and other stakeholders have requested copies of the report, which will aid in future policy decisions and inform how the country moves forward in the energy transition.
“With reports like this, we can understand the transition time period. What do we currently have, and how can natural gas help with all of this?” Sonnenberg said.
“It’s important for policymakers to know that abundant supply is there. The people who are making decisions need to know we have enough that we can use quickly and not rely on imports as much,” Farmer explained.
The PGC is a valuable asset for evaluating the future.
The PGC’s work is not only critical for understanding the U.S’s natural gas supply and its role in the energy transition but also for assessing exactly how those resources are going to be used in the future. “There’s a lot of uncertainty moving forward and a lot of uneven distribution in terms of energy,” Roberts said. “The PGA’s role in being an assessor of energy is really important and will remain important. Being able to put numbers to the future gas supply is really valuable to being able to bring online new technologies, knowing when to sell some of the resource and when to hold onto it is really important.”
The agency can also play an important role in evaluating new gas-based energy sources. “We have newly important gases, like hydrogen and helium, that we haven’t traditionally understood very well,” Roberts said. “This seems like a really positive way that the agency can remain active and valuable.”