Since its release last year, an MIT study on the future of natural gas has generated nearly 17,000 unique page hits on its website. Not bad for a 287-page technical report.

Among its conclusions: natural gas will play a major role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions over the next several decades, largely by replacing inefficient coal plants with gas plants that emit less carbon dioxide. Also it reveals, we must pay attention to environmental concerns related to the resource. “If we don’t deal with these concerns seriously, we could lose access to the resource and its positive environmental and economic effects,” says Henry Jacoby, who led the study with Ernest Moniz, director of the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), and Visiting Engineer Anthony Meggs. Another conclusion is that increasing supplies of the fuel could have important geo-political implications, changing the dynamics of the international energy market.

Over the last few years, natural gas from an unconventional source — shale — has become the largest U.S. energy story in decades, says Moniz, past undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Energy. Thanks to new technologies that make it easier to access, “shale gas has gone from contributing to almost none of the natural gas produced in the U.S. to accounting for about 25 percent of U.S. gas production. I cannot remember anything scaling that fast in the energy business.”

Of the MIT work, Jacoby says: “There have been other studies on natural gas, but none has had the same depth. We went at this in an MIT-ish kind of way, getting into the down-and-dirty details of understanding and managing the resource, and creating national and global economic analyses.” Jacoby is co-director emeritus of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, which conducted the economic analyses.

From the beginning, MITEI has sought not only to tackle the research challenges behind the world’s energy crisis, but also to influence and inform public policy through in-depth multidisciplinary studies. It has coordinated and released five such reports, including that on natural gas, funded by the American Clean Skies Foundation, Hess Corporation, Agencia Naçional de Hidrocarburos, the Gas Technology Institute, Exelon, and an anonymous donor.

The MITEI studies, which include policy recommendations, have been released at public events and have been presented to senior administration officials and lawmakers. Moniz has testified multiple times before Congress.

“Our energy problems are very large scale. To deal with them in any depth you have to bring together people from a variety of disciplines,” says Jacoby, the William F. Pounds Professor of Management, Emeritus. “Not many universities can pull this off,” but at MIT “the barriers between departments are not very high.” Further, he says, “it’s part of our self-image. When there is a problem, we go after it.”

“Natural gas is a big deal, with important potential for the control of greenhouse gases, but the environmental issues have to be managed,” Jacoby concludes. “The MIT study attempts to capture that and more.”