State and US Regional Policies

Identifying “Known Unknowns” in the Natural Gas Revolution

Apr 3, 2014 | Kristin Hayes

Last week, my colleagues and I released a new RFF report, The Natural NGI-coverGas Revolution: Critical Questions for a Sustainable Energy Future. At one point, I began referring to this document as the “Known Unknowns” report, in reference to a widely quoted Donald Rumsfeld speech. As the former secretary of defense noted, there are certain pieces of information that “we know we don’t know”—and those are what my coauthors and I have tried to identify for the broad world of natural gas development and use.

Our goal was extensive. We reviewed the literature and consulted experts in a range of different areas—from resource estimates, to demand drivers, to environmental risks and economic opportunities—to better understand what socioeconomic and policy questions researchers have already tried to answer. (Note the emphasis on socioeconomic and policy questions, areas that are the strengths of researchers at RFF; we largely chose not to explore technology questions, although there are many of importance.)

This search turned up a small number of relatively definitive answers (the known knowns, if you will), and many more uncertainties or remaining controversies. We sorted these into seven categories, which turned into chapters in the report: supply, demand, economic impacts, environmental impacts, climate impacts, regulatory and voluntary best practices, and international issues.

Within each of these chapters, we then identified “critical questions” (24 in total). We believe that answering or resolving any of these questions would fundamentally advance the debate around how to sustainably develop natural gas. Highlights include being able to better estimate supply elasticities; estimating the health impacts of shale gas development; understanding how the liability system plays into risk management; modeling the impacts of future stationary source greenhouse gas regulation on natural gas use; and predicting how future pricing structures will impact international gas trade. In essence, we laid out a research agenda for those committed to improving the sustainability of how we extract and use this valuable natural resource, now and in the future.

One final note: the world of natural gas research is moving at a fast clip. At a certain point we had to go to press—but inevitably, more relevant research has come out since then. We continue to watch this space, and have captured additional research products in a forthcoming reference library.

There are no doubt additional subtleties to be considered, and alternative judgments to be made about where to invest limited research dollars. We’d love to hear from others: what questions do you consider most critical? Where you would invest your research funds? What topics from our list are you planning to tackle in the future?