Reconsidering Chattanooga Shale

Instead of expensive nukes, let's go for a free fuel source on the next TVA plant

Okay, it's fantasy time. I'm sure there are some engineers and geologists out there who will quarrel with me, but it is something that ought to be discussed, studied, and considered. It would be if TVA was still a bold innovator and pioneer in electricity production.

A lot of attention is being paid to the oil sands in Canada and North Dakota and the Keystone pipeline. What has been pretty well ignored is something called Chattanooga Shale, a pocket of natural gas-rich shale that stretches from East Tennessee into North Georgia and North Alabama.

TVA could scrap plans to build another nuclear reactor at its Bellefonte site down below Chattanooga. They could instead drill down between 3,000 and 4,000 feet and have its own natural gas well—on site. A plant burning natural gas is more environmentally friendly than coal and is safer than a nuclear reactor. And the fuel for the plant would be free. Yes, free. As in no fuel cost.

Yes, in order to get the natural gas you would have to use the fracking process. It has been in use for a long time in the natural gas industry and at the depths of natural gas pockets it is well below the water table. Water pollution problems are usually caused by spilling chemicals on the surface.

If the Bellefonte experiment worked, TVA could look at natural gas supplies near its coal-fired plants and drill there as well. Converting coal burning to natural gas would eliminate the air pollution that is the inevitable by-product of current steam plants.

The Chattanooga Shale, located on the end of the Appalachian Basis, is in varying quantities but is up to 200 feet thick in places. There might not be enough natural gas for a long-term field to produce it for general consumption. But you could operate TVA power plants on the product for decades.

A conversion to natural gas—free natural gas—would reduce TVA debt. It would lower all our utility bills. Cheaper power would give Tennessee Valley industries a tremendous advantage and make industrial recruitment soar. It would replace burning coal. It would stop the current practice of blowing water down our rivers, destroying stream banks. It would allow the lakes to keep water in them during boating season. It would be safer than operating nuclear plants, a fairly inefficient way to boil water.

The idea of TVA owning a fuel source is not a new concept. For decades, TVA has owned the coal rights to vast tracts of land and used to have it mined for their steam plants. Unfortunately, the coal in East Tennessee had high sulfur content and the coming of environmental regulations forced the agency to go looking for cleaner-burning coal on the open market. They also had to have someone mine it for them and transport it to coal-fired plants.

If the natural gas well is a successful idea, there are no transportation costs and TVA doesn't have to pay someone to go out and harvest it.

As I said, this may be a harebrained idea and the experts can shoot holes in it. But what if would work?

I know some environmentalists are opposed to fracking. Is there any way to produce large amounts of energy that environmentalists can't find fault with? It is my contention, however, that if we can get rid of coal burning, why wouldn't we? I think nuclear power has its uses, it powers our submarines and aircraft carriers and France has had a very successful program to produce virtually all its electricity. But the massive plants running from Knoxville to Chattanooga and on down to Alabama represent aging technology, aging plants, and the possibility of error is ever present.

Will someone please consider an alternative? America has a hundred years' worth of natural gas. It's clean burning. It's there, according to geological reports.

There may not be enough gas to warrant an oil company drilling and trying to do a pipeline. But there should be enough there for TVA, on a single site, to provide us with electricity for a very long time.

Somebody call a Wildcat oil driller and let's get started.